Campaigns and Voting


Campaigns have always been expensive. Also, they have sometimes been negative and nasty. The 1828 “Coffin Handbill” that John Quincy Adams ran, for instance, listed the names and circumstances of the executions his opponent Andrew Jackson had ordered (Figure). This was in addition to gossip and verbal attacks against Jackson’s wife, who had accidentally committed bigamy when she married him without a proper divorce. Campaigns and candidates have not become more amicable in the years since then.

An image of a handbill from the 1828 presidential election. The top reads “General Jackson” underneath which are several coffins.
The infamous “Coffin Handbill” used by John Quincy Adams against Andrew Jackson in the 1828 presidential election.

Once television became a fixture in homes, campaign advertising moved to the airwaves. Television allowed candidates to connect with the voters through video, allowing them to appeal directly to and connect emotionally with voters. While Adlai Stevenson and Dwight D. Eisenhower were the first to use television in their 1952 and 1956 campaigns, the ads were more like jingles with images. Stevenson’s “Let’s Not Forget the Farmer” ad had a catchy tune, but its animated images were not serious and contributed little to the message. The “Eisenhower Answers America” spots allowed Eisenhower to answer policy questions, but his answers were glib rather than helpful.

John Kennedy’s campaign was the first to use images to show voters that the candidate was the choice for everyone. His ad, “Kennedy,” combined the jingle “Kennedy for me” and photographs of a diverse population dealing with life in the United States.

Link to learning graphic

The Museum of the Moving Image has collected presidential campaign ads from 1952 through today, including the “Kennedy for Me” spot mentioned above. Take a look and see how candidates have created ads to get the voters’ attention and votes over time.

Over time, however, ads became more negative and manipulative. In reaction, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, or McCain–Feingold, included a requirement that candidates stand by their ad and include a recorded statement within the ad stating that they approved the message. Although ads, especially those run by super PACs, continue to be negative, candidates can no longer dodge responsibility for them.

Candidates are also frequently using interviews on late night television to get messages out. Soft news, or infotainment, is a new type of news that combines entertainment and information. Shows like The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight make the news humorous or satirical while helping viewers become more educated about the events around the nation and the world.“Public Knowledge of Current Affairs Little Changed by News and Information Revolutions,” Pew Research Center, April 15, 2007. In 2008, Huckabee, Obama, and McCain visited popular programs like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Late Night with Conan O’Brien to target informed voters in the under-45 age bracket. The candidates were able to show their funny sides and appear like average Americans, while talking a bit about their policy preferences. By fall of 2015, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert had already interviewed most of the potential presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump.

The Internet has given candidates a new platform and a new way to target voters. In the 2000 election, campaigns moved online and created websites to distribute information. They also began using search engine results to target voters with ads. In 2004, Democratic candidate Howard Dean used the Internet to reach out to potential donors. Rather than host expensive dinners to raise funds, his campaign posted footage on his website of the candidate eating a turkey sandwich. The gimmick brought over $200,000 in campaign donations and reiterated Dean’s commitment to be a down-to-earth candidate. Candidates also use social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, to interact with supporters and get the attention of younger voters.