Unlike his opponent William Jennings Bryan, who traveled by railroad and spoke to crowds across the nation, William McKinley stayed at home during his campaign for the presidency. The practice of a “front porch campaign” was the norm at that time. Instead of candidates going out to the people, loyalists and the curious traveled across country to listen to speeches given by candidates from their homes. After McKinley’s speech his wife, Ida often served the crowd lemonade. The crowds, however, were less than generous with the McKinley family and tore apart their fence, piece by piece, keeping the fence sections as souvenirs.
In this lesson students will gain an understanding of the evolution of Presidential campaigns in the United States.
Access to the Internet.
1. Explain to students that in current presidential campaigns one of the primary goals is reaching the public through public relations and the media; in the past the opposite was the practice. Candidates stayed at home and the public traveled across the country to hear them give speeches.
2. Show one or two Presidential commercials from the past, such as the “I like Ike” commercials for Dwight D. Eisenhower. By doing so, students will be given a visual image of how presidential campaigns have changed. Presidential campaign commercials from 1956 to 2004 are available on-line at Living Room Candidate or Ease History.
3. Have the students form groups. Assign each group in the class five Presidential campaigns to research. Each group should have a presidential campaign from each of the following time periods:
- 1800 – 1870’s
- 1880’s – 1950’s
- 1950 – 1980’s
- 1990 to present
4. Tell students that in their research they are to locate the following information and that they will be reporting their findings to each other:
- Did the candidates travel to meet the public or did the public travel to meet the candidates?
- Did the candidates have slogans, if so what were the slogans?
- What type media existed (Newspapers, radio, television, internet)? How was the media used (i.e. reporting only, commercials, etc.)
- What occurred at the national conventions (i.e. general agreement on issues and candidate/ fighting over candidates and issues)?
- In general how were candidates sold and what about it was effective (i.e. successful commercial, public relations of an issue raised by the opponent)
- President McKinley was the first candidate to use a public relations strategy primarily due to controversy surrounding his wife. For the candidates after McKinley, what was the public relations strategy (i.e. sling mud, respond to accusations, spread rumors about the other candidate).
5. Once students have completed their research, tell them that they must come to a consensus regarding the following questions and they will report back to the class their conclusions:
- How has the use of media in presidential campaigns changed from the 1700’s to today? Provide three examples that support your conclusion.
- How have responsibilities changed regarding how the public knows candidates? Provide three examples that support your conclusion.
- How have political slogans changed? Provide three examples that support your conclusion.
- How has the use of negative rumors and public relations changed? Provide three examples that support your conclusion.
6. When reporting their conclusions back to the class, have them do so in the style of a press conference and have the class ask questions of the groups like news reporters might. Also encourage students to ask challenging questions, especially if their findings were different.
Extending the Lesson:
To extend this lesson, have students design a presidential campaign for a former President, but do so within the parameters of another era. For example, create a Presidential campaign for George Washington that would include televised candidate debates and television commercials.
Sources & Resources:
History of Presidential Campaigns:
Boller, Paul F. Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Cornog, Evan and Whelan, Richard. Hats in the Ring: An Illustrated History of American Presidential Campaigns. New York: Random House, 2000.
Schoen, Douglas. On the Campaign Trail: The Long Road of Presidential Politics. HarperCollins Publishers, 2004.
Shields-West, Eileen and MacNelly, Jeff. The World Almanac of Presidential Campaigns: All the Facts, Anecdotes, Scandals, and Mudslinging in the History of the Race for the White House. New York: World Almanac, 1992.
History of Presidential Campaigns (teachers only):
Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. Packaging the Presidency: A History and Criticism of Presidential Campaign Advertising. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Mieczkowski, Yanek. The Routledge Historical Atlas of Presidential Elections. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Pelosi, Alexandra. Sneaking Into the Flying Circus: How the Media Turn Our Presidential Campaigns Into Freak Shows. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2005.
Scher, Richard K. The Modern Political Campaign: Mudslinging, Bombast, and the Vitality of America. New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1997.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza. First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and their Power, 1789-1961. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
Belden, Henry. Grand Tour of Ida Saxton McKinley and Sister Mary Saxton Barber, 1869. Canton: H. S. Belden, 1985.
Bell, Carol Willsey. Ancestry of Ida Saxton McKinley, wife of Pres. William McKinley. Columbus: Ohio Historical Society, 1975.
Boller, Paul. Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Caroli, Betty Boyd. First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Laura Bush. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Linsay, Rae. The Presidents’ First Ladies. Englewood Cliffs: Gilmour House, 2001
Philips, Kevin P. and Schlesinger, Arthur Meier. William McKinley, 1897-1901: The American Presidents Series. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003.
Roberts, John B. Rating the first Ladies: The Women Who Influenced the President. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2003.
Watson, Robert P. The Presidents’ Wives: Reassessing the Office of first Lady. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2000.
History of Political Campaigns:
This lesson was written by Debra L. Clark, Kent State University.