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Presentation Elections

Persuading Voters: Political Campaigns

The road to the White House is long, expensive, and exhausting. Becoming a candidate is only the beginning of the election process. Successful candidates must both persuade voters that they deserve their individual votes and garner the critical votes of electors in the Electoral College.

Persuading voters is the essence of a political campaign. Advertising, theme songs, stump speeches, and even negative campaigning have been around since our country began, and each advance in technology since then has offered new opportunities for candidates to persuade voters. Study the campaign poster of Millard Fillmore from 1850. Would the figures of Justice and Liberty wearing gowns and tiaras surrounding Millard Fillmore sway a modern voter? Probably not, but notice the American flags in both of these posters. We certainly see that imagery in advertisements for candidates running in current presidential elections.

Left: Millard Fillmore; right: Page 1 of Honest old Abe: song & chorus words by D. Wentworth, Esq.; music by a Wide Awake.

Developments in photographic techniques sparked new campaign strategies. For example, in 1860, photographs of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin were featured on campaign buttons. Campaigns still relied on tried and true ways to persuade voters, such as sheet music, and direct contact between voters and candidates. One voter sent these specific questions to Abraham Lincoln:

1st-- Suppose you should be elected President of the United States and the South would not submit to your inauguration: What would you do? --
2nd -- Are you opposed to slavery as it now exists in the slave states, and if so, do you believe that Congress has more power to remove it from those states than to protect it in the Territories?
3rd -- Were you in favor of J[ohn] Brown the Traitor, or do you now occasionally drop a silent tear or two in honor to his memory?
I am a voter and I want to know exactly every inch of ground you stand upon -- I want to know for I want to vote for the right kind of a man -- If you suit me I'll go for you -- If not away with you!!

From Thomas T. Swan to Abraham Lincoln, June 15. 1860

And That is How Benny Got In A Song for the Coming Campaign

Listen to an audio clip of candidate Calvin Coolidge on the subject of Law and Order. It's hard to imagine this monotone voice, this "man of few words" appealing to modern voters. Coolidge faced a public appeal challenge even in his own day, yet voters elected Coolidge when he ran. Coolidge's emphasis on traditional values, frugality and economy in government would be familiar topics in a presidential debate today. If a candidate's message speaks to the people, if they choose their issues wisely, the office of president may be theirs. This was true in Coolidge's time; is it still true today?

Over time the media has changed, and today's campaign strategies reflect the use of statistical analysis and the science of influence and affect. Today, a candidate's every word, every action, and even their perceived thoughts are paraded before the public. However, many of the methods for persuading voters remain essentially the same.