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Running for President

From the Collection: The Presidents

Since our country's first Presidential election in 1788, the strategies of those campaigning have changed dramatically. Although the tactics that presidential hopefuls used in the early days of our country's history are still relevant, those who seek to be the Commander in Chief today must embrace a vast array of strategies that invite constant exposure and accountability.

When George Washington was elected the first American President, he was the unanimous choice, receiving the votes of all 132 electors. In 1796, after eight years of Washington, America saw its first exposure to a true campaign during the second Presidential election. Vice President John Adams ran against Thomas Jefferson, who had been nominated by the country's first political opposition party, the Democratic-Republicans. As citizens of a new and fragile democracy, both Adams and Jefferson had to comply with the public's opposition to outspoken campaigning and direct appeals for votes.

Four years later, the same two candidates raised the stakes during the 1800 election. Jefferson, who had lost in 1796, paid the editor of the Richmond Examiner to print anti-Federalist articles and to praise the efforts of Jefferson's Party. His supporters accused the incumbent president Adams of having a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." In response, a leaflet by Adams' team called Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father."

Smear campaigns persisted through the 19th century. In 1884, supporters of Republican Party candidate James Blaine coined a jingle that alluded to an illegitimate child that his opponent Grover Cleveland had allegedly fathered:

Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?
Gone to the White House,
Ha, ha, ha!

Cleveland's party responded with a tune of their own:

Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine,
The Continental Liar from the State of Maine!

Political cartoons soon accompanied the campaign slurs. A drawing from the political magazine Judge depicted Cleveland covering his ears in aggravation as a crying baby identified him as his father. In the rival magazine Puck, a cartoon exhibited an aging James Blaine losing a footrace to a shadow comprised of his own scandals.

In the 20th century, television changed the way candidates ran their elections. Since the first televised debate in 1960, when viewers resoundingly favored a fresh-faced John F. Kennedy over the sallow Richard Nixon, television appearances have played an integral role in the campaign. Contemporary presidential candidates often undergo lengthy training before ever appearing on television. Preceding the 2012 primary elections, Republicans held no fewer than 28 nationally televised debates. Political candidates and organizations spend billions of dollars on television ads -- by some accounts, as much as 75 percent of a campaign's budget goes directly towards the production and airing of television advertisements.

Now in the 21st century, presidential candidates rely on the Internet -- with official websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts to provide constant access to the voting public and to increase candidates' reach beyond television. While campaigning for President in 2008, a video of Barack Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech reached nearly seven million views on YouTube.

Although the system of the presidential election has remained a constant in American society, the methods of campaigning have drastically changed since Jefferson's days. After generations of political pamphlets, newspaper smears, and catchy slogans ("I Like Ike!"), the growing presence of televised debates and constant access through a networked world has forced candidates to participate in a lengthy, exhausting and costly march towards the White House.

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