As the age of technology progresses, so does the way we receive information about politics. Each President in history has used all media channels available to disseminate campaign material to the public, some better than others. Looking back on several elections, we can see the trends of how technology has influenced politics over time.
William Henry Harrison, Railway King.
William Henry Harrison is primarily known as having the shortest presidency in our nation’s history, having died only a month into his first term. However, there’s much more to the man and his path to the White House that deserves to be remembered.
Harrison first ran for president in 1836, campaigning for the Whig Party’s nomination. Unfortunately for Harrison, the Whigs had a contested nomination and actually put forth three separate candidates in the general election against the much more well-known Democrat, Martin Van Buren.
Van Buren was already Vice President and known throughout the nation. In order to combat the fame of his main opponent, and the other candidacies within his own party, Harrison began looking for new ways to campaign. He realized early on that rail service could transport him quickly from one place to another to hold rallies, deliver speeches, and give him the ability to take his message directly to the people.
Harrison became the first presidential candidate ever to employ passenger trains as part of his campaign strategy and as a result he garnered a respectable 36% of the vote, coming in second to Van Buren. Most importantly, the fame and recognition he gathered on the railways lead him to a decisive victory over the incumbent Van Buren in the 1840 election. After his victory, he became the first president to take a train to his inauguration.
William McKinley’s Hollywood Moment.
William McKinley’s presidency is most commonly remembered for ending in the horrific tragedy of his assassination. This unspeakable act overshadows a number of important developments during his tenure, including the first use of motion pictures for political campaign purposes.
The film was made in 1896 and was rudimentary at best. It showed McKinley accepting a letter notifying him that he would win the Republican nomination, simply tipping his hat, and smiling at the news. McKinley had already proven himself to be effective and innovative in his communication with the electorate and the press. He pushed out informational pamphlets en masse and made a regular spectacle out of his own home, saying it would always be open to the public. He held near-daily rallies from the comfort of his front porch, something that delighted reporters and newspaper readers.
The film provided another moment to create publicity by doing things differently. While the release of the film was actually incredibly limited, the novelty of the concept attracted media attention to his campaign and to the fledgling motion picture industry—both of which would prove to be incredibly successful just a short time later.
Kennedy vs Nixon live in your living room.
In 1960, as the young Senator from Massachusetts won his party’s nomination, he had to face off against the current Vice President for the seat behind the resolute desk. Most pundits, news men, and ordinary people thought it was a lost cause. Kennedy trailed closely behind Nixon for much of the race, however, that changed drastically in September. Both candidates agreed to appear in the first live televised debate and roughly 40% of the country tuned in to watch.
The young, passionate Kennedy is widely regarded to have trounced his opponent. People noted that Nixon seemed uncomfortable on screen and some even said the Vice President looked sickly. It was true he had actually just gotten out of the hospital, but he also seemed to have put little thought into appearance, wearing a poorly fitting light gray suit and bad makeup that exacerbated this effect. Kennedy jumped in the polls, and suddenly everything about running for the Presidency had changed.
The idea of ‘looking presidential’ was effectively invented in that debate. Voters were no longer being swayed solely by what the candidates thought, but also how they conveyed those ideas and what they looked like doing it.
Jesse Ventura wins the internet, wins the election.
The leaps that were made in technology in the 1990’s can’t be understated, and neither can their effect on nearly every facet of our society. Fitting perhaps, then, that the first politician to harness this power was the decidedly not understated former pro-wrestler who would become the Governor of Minnesota.
In 1998, Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura declared his candidacy. He had previously served as the Mayor of Brooklyn Park and was anxious to bring his populist message to a larger audience. Initially, he was seen as little more than a distraction. He had chosen to run as a member of Ross Perot’s Reform Party, and at the beginning of his campaign he lacked the funding to open an office. What changed all of this was an early realization that the internet could be used as a tool to fundraise and organize.
Ventura began building a robust email list, which he then used to share his ideas on policy and his opponents. It was online that Ventura succeeded at connecting with voters.
Ventura began to put out engaging content, both written and video, through his website and spread it to his supporters, which in turn lead to him bringing in $90,000 in small donations. At one point his webstore was even selling ‘Gov. Ventura’ action figures.
Ventura’s email list eventually morphed into a traditional campaign apparatus; among the 3,000 Minnesotans he connected with digitally, many went on to aid his campaign as canvassers, field organizers, and event coordinators. It was this online model that other ‘insurgent’ candidates such as John McCain and Howard Dean would attempt to use, but ultimately fail to perfect, in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.
None of this seems unique now, but close to 20 years ago it was absolutely revolutionary.
Barack Obama gets social while his team gets analytical.
In the ten years since Ventura won the Governor’s mansion in Minnesota, the internet had changed dramatically and yet no one had been able to match—let alone surpass—his effectiveness at using technology to win elections. That all changed when the junior Senator from Illinois hit the national stage.
Barack Obama chose to run against some of the largest names in national politics at that time, and it should be remembered that almost no one thought he had anything resembling a chance at the outset of his campaign. We know now, of course, that he went on to become our 44th President.
How did he get there? It can’t be overlooked that he had natural talents that helped propel him forward. He was likable, charming, and he connected with Americans from vastly different walks of life in a way that almost no one had since Reagan. It was, however, mastering social media that truly pushed him over the threshold.
The Obama campaign communicated with the public differently than almost any politician had prior to him. It was through social media that Obama’s campaign was able to receive direct feedback from people on the issues that troubled them most. In 2008 social media still felt fairly new in many ways. Obama’s campaign utilized tools like MySpace and Facebook to connect with young people and truly engage them. From there his campaign created its own limited network MyBO, which turned online supporters into physical volunteers.
Obama’s embrace of technology and new forms of interaction did more than just help him reach new voters; it fed into his larger message of change. His messaging made you aware that this was going to be a different presidency, ready to handle the challenges of the technological era.