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Presidential Elections over the Years

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Presidential Elections: Then and Now

The presidency is the single most important position in all of American government. Who the presidents were and what they did say a lot about America as a whole. In colonial America, the election of public and church officials could probably date back to the very beginning at Plymouth Rock. In the presidential era of the late 19th century, the job as president was considered just that, a job. The presidents made little effort to reach out to the public unlike today where that is the main audience; they need to make the public happy. The president was seen as merely a type of civil servant. All other parts of the government were more important. For example, Congress, who controlled the federal budget, public issues, and legislation, allowed no type of interference from the president. Today the president is more of a leader, equip with more power than in the past.

Today the United States Constitution states that there is a right to hold elections, but the methods and places are left up to the state. It also states that the elections of presidents and vice presidents are to be indirect, which means that they are chosen by electors whom are selected by the people-the Electoral College. There is more emphasis on what the people want and need. This is one result of a changing government and society. With these changes came changes in the way the presidential elections were seen and controlled and also the methods taken to achieve a victory.

There are many differences in the presidential elections of the late 19th, early 20th century and with the elections of today, however there are similarities too. The major areas about presidential elections that are easily comparable are the areas of campaigning, debates, and issues.

In the early years of the nation, men would be asked to take political office. These men were supposedly well known and their character and experience were expected to speak for themselves. As politics democratized in the 19th century, men began to "run" for public office by promoting themselves through campaigning. This was true for all offices except the presidency. The public and press were opposed to presidential campaigning because it was a too dignified position for the candidates to embarrass themselves with personal salesmanship. People felt the president should be above partisanship. This way he would be able to act for the common good. Congress was supposed to make the laws; the president was just to see that it was obeyed.

During the period of the 19th and early 20th centuries that belief wore out because presidential candidates changed the level of their participation in their election. They became more active in the involvement of the campaign. There was an uneven movement from the private and silent candidate to the public and direct candidate.

After learning that he was likely to be defeated by fellow nominee Abraham Lincoln, Democratic nominee Stephen Douglas took a campaign swing through the south in1860 urging them not to secede upon Lincoln's election. This was the first issue-oriented speaking tour by a presidential nominee. Up until 1908, the "front-porch" campaigns were very popular. This was campaigning that literally took place on the nominee's front porch, usually with an audience of extreme party loyalists. The 1908 election was the first in which both major party nominees engaged in issue-oriented speaking tours. Now that campaigning was becoming more popular, fundraising became a key factor in elections. This money came from numerous places. Local organizations would ask for contributions from their members, public dinners were held that had a fee to attend, and there were sometimes admissions at party meetings. They mostly relied on wealthy businessmen and industries for the money.

Today the president has to reach out to the public. He has an obligation to be active in the election, if he wasn't he wouldn't be taken seriously and his ideas and views wouldn't be heard. Campaigning is a huge factor in today's elections, usually starting at least a year before the election, if not more. The nominees travel the country, usually making stops in as many states as possible, sometimes multiple stops in equally divided states. When it comes to financing these campaigns, most of the same methods apply. Wealthy businessmen are large contributors and a lot of money comes from actual fundraisers, yet there is still a considerable amount of money that comes from smaller donations from individuals through the mail. If someone is considered a less popular or well-known nominee, then a lot of their financing comes from their own pocket. As the role of the president changed, campaigning became most of what it is today.

Character assassination and other forms of negative campaigning became popular during the period of the late 19th century and early 20th century. The political system supported a more win at all costs attitude mainly because, over the 19th century, it gradually became more democratic. At this time, this negative campaigning became very harsh and cruel. Opponents of Andrew Jackson accused him of murder and cartoonists constantly made fun of Lincoln for his unattractive looks. During Lincoln's reelection, Republicans depicted the Democrats as traitors using posters and pamphlets. The candidates focused on very personal things and at times involving family members of their opponents. They concentrated more on the opponents' character than on the issues.

This still does go on today, but because of past laws and amendments to civil rights laws, negative campaigning is now where near this harsh. Candidates cannot go around saying anything they want. They need to have some kind of proof or research that explains why they feel this way about their opponent. They can't just start accusing people of murder like opponents did to Jackson. A lot of the ads on television today are an example of negative campaigning. They don't focus on the views of the nominee, but rather the negative views or tactics, according to the party, of their opponent. Negative campaigning will probably be around for a long time to come, but the government and the public are finding ways to make it more positive.

Presidential debates did not play a role in the nation's early presidential races. Candidates were supposed to save their energy for the tasks of the government. There was only the campaigning, which was done through newspapers, pamphlets, posters, and public meetings. These methods did not give objective ideas; they were made and solicited by each political party. Important debates were limited to Congress. The first debates with national significance were between



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