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October 29, 2020

Lesson Plan: Five memorable presidential campaigns



U.S. history, social studies, civics

Estimated Time

One 50-minute class period

Grade Level

9 – 12


Students will read primary sources and biographies and share with the entire group what they have learned about presidential campaigns.


Every presidential campaign season makes history, and the 2020 race is no exception. Candidates Donald Trump and Joe Biden are running against the backdrop of a COVID-19 pandemic, record vote by mail and early voting, strong youth turnout and a confusing media environment. But is this election cycle all that unusual? This lesson examines five notable presidential campaigns to help put in context our current election cycle, which will be analyzed long after voting concludes on November 3.

William McKinley’s “Front Porch” campaign, 1896

In 1896, Republican McKinley stayed at home in Canton, Ohio, and appeared in front of invited crowds, literally on his front porch. He spoke to supporters every day except Sunday from June through Election Day. His opponent, William Jennings Bryan, mounted a nationwide railroad campaign; he was a brilliant orator and McKinley knew better than to try to compete with him as a speaker. “I might as well put up a trapeze on my front lawn and compete against some professional athlete as go out speaking against Bryan. I have to think when I speak.”

McKinley’s campaign manager Mark Hanna made sure that each trainload of visitors was met at the station by mounted McKinley campaign guards and escorted to the house through streets lined with tricolor bunting and campaign signs. The topic of the day was announced in advance, featuring most often McKinley’s support of the gold standard backing American money and encouraging American capitalists. Democrat William Jennings Bryan spoke daily all around the country in impassioned long performances of his “Cross of Gold” speech, calling for the abandonment of the gold standard, a plan which would favor debtors over creditors and benefit American workers.

“We know what partial free trade has done for the labor of the United States. It has diminished its employment and earnings. We do not propose now to inaugurate a currency system that will cheat labor in its pay. The laboring men of this country whenever they give one day’s work to their employers, want to be paid in full dollars good anywhere in the world … We want in this country good work, good wages, and good money.” —William McKinley, address to a delegation of Pennsylvania ironworkers, September 19, 1896.

You can hear McKinley below.

Here is his opponent, orator William Jennings Bryan. The styles are clearly different.


Teddy Roosevelt Shot on the Campaign Trail, 1912

Roosevelt was unhappy with the hand picked successor he had sponsored in 1908, William Howard Taft. As an incumbent, Taft was renominated, although Roosevelt made a bid at the Republican convention to unseat him. After Taft’s formal nomination, Roosevelt mounted a third party bid under the name of the new Progressive Party, which won the nickname “Bull Moose Party” when Roosevelt assured the nation that he was as energetic as a bull moose, as he had always been. The Democrats nominated Woodrow Wilson, and the fourth candidate was perennial Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs.

Roosevelt campaigned vigorously as he had promised, speaking throughout the country about a platform he called the “New Nationalism,” which included an eight hour workday  and federal regulation of business. His voice rang out in typical TR fashion:


Teddy Roosevelt was shot during a campaign speech on October 14, 1912 in Cleveland, Ohio. The bullet passed through his overcoat, his eyeglasses case, and his 50 page speech, piercing his skin. The items in his pocket may have saved his life.  He asked the audience to “be especially quiet. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot.” He unbuttoned his vest to show the large bloodstain on his shirt. “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose! The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best,” he proclaimed. While bleeding, he gave the speech – 15 minutes long – and afterward met with the assassin, who apparently didn’t believe in a third term for presidents.

Teddy Roosevelt’s bloody shirt after assassination attempt

Taft and Roosevelt split the Republication vote, making way for the victory of Woodrow Wilson.





Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaigning while paralyzed

In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt, then governor of New York, ran against incumbent president Herbert Hoover on a platform of government aid to the desperate poor during the Great Depression. Many of the programs that he spoke about were later enacted in the New Deal.

Roosevelt, a polio victim, had been paralyzed from the waist down since 1921. There was a “gentleman’s agreement” with photographers that he would not be pictured in his wheelchair. He toured the country from his car (above) or from the backs of trains, so that voters did not see that he couldn’t walk.

Roosevelt used the radio effectively to campaign, with the side benefit that it avoided voters’ notice of his disability. Most importantly, the airwaves created the ability to reach millions for the first time in the country’s history. He was a natural on air, with what one radio producer called “a tone of perfect sincerity,” which would later become most iconic in his “Fireside Chats” as president. Even his campaign song, “Happy Days Are Here Again,” became wildly popular on the radio:


FDR’s vocal delivery, 1936:


Campaign photographs from the backs of trains gave the illusion that Roosevelt was standing on his own, but if you look carefully he was always being supported. In the images below, at left, he could manage it with just one arm hooked around his son James Roosevelt’s arm. In the second picture, FDR needed both Eleanor Roosevelt’s hand and the railing.


The election was held on November 8, 1932, and FDR won a landslide victory over Hoover.


Harry Truman’s Whistlestop Campaign, 1948

In 1948, Truman, who had served the more than three years which remained of FDR’s term after Roosevelt’s death, faced an uphill campaign against a highly popular opponent, Republican Thomas E. Dewey.  Dewey was the New York governor defeated by Roosevelt in the 1944 presidential race, and he was an accomplished politician with undergraduate and law degrees. Truman had never been to college at all. He had originally owned a men’s wear store in Kansas City, Missouri.

Harry Truman was famous for “straight talk” and a simple connection to people. On his desk he was proud of a sign that said “The Buck Stops Here.” His campaign advisors told him to try an extreme measure: eight solid weeks aboard a campaign train, speaking without notes at every stop, addressing ordinary citizens in a “down home” style. He turned out to be a highly effective campaigner.

Truman traveled with his family for 32,000 miles, to 28 different states. They slept and ate aboard the train. In a surprising upset, he defeated Dewey.





Michael Dukakis: The Tank and Willie Horton

Democrat Michael Dukakis, governor of Massachusetts, ran against Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988. Bush was known for his international expertise, having served as U.N. ambassador and ambassador to China. A campaign ad of Dukakis riding on a tank was supposed to alleviate the view of Dukakis as weak on foreign policy, but it backfired.

On the other hand, Vice President Bush’s commercial attacking Dukakis on the prison furlough program he had initiated in Massachusetts became a famous example of an aggressive attack ad. It pictured Willie Horton, a black prisoner on temporary furlough who had raped a white woman and killed her and her partner. It provided what is often called a “dog whistle”: a call to racism that is indirect.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and a founder of FactCheck.org, the recognized expert on political campaign advertising, analyzed the Dukakis commercial in this segment.


  1. Which of the campaigning models of McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Truman and Dukakis seem to be mirrored by Joe Biden? Donald Trump?
  2. The dual strategies of building up the perception of the candidate vs. attacking the opponent are apparent in the ads for Trump and Biden now. Watch several and record for each of them claims that build up vs. claims that attack. You may also want to check out this lesson on the campaigns’ ads.
  3. What was the most effective ad you saw? Why?


Syd Golston is a past president of the National Council for the Social Studies. She has served as a history teacher, school administrator, and curriculum writer for many decades. She is the author of Changing Woman of the Apache, Death Penalty, Studies in Arizona History, and other publications and articles.

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  • Standards

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    Relevant National Standards:
      Thematic Standards
    • Standard 2: Time, Continuity and Change
    • Standard 3: People, Places and Environments
    • Standard 4: Individual Development and Identity
    • Standard 5: Individuals, Groups and Institutions
    • Standard 6: Power, Authority and Governance
    • Standard 10: Civic Ideals and Practices
    • Disciplinary Standards
    • Standard 1: History
    • Standard 3: Civics and Government

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