"THE PEOPLE HAVE NOMINATED YOU without any pledges or engagements of any sort ... and they want you to do nothing ail: present but allow yourself to be elected," the poet and newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant told Abraham Lincoln in 1860. "Make no speeches, write no letters as a candidate, enter into no pledges, make no promises." As Americans grumble, in what has become a quadrennial ritual, that the presidential campaign is too long, too nasty, and too frivolous, they should consider whether they would really prefer a return to the 19th-century rules of the game that are so often held up as an alternative.
A look back at the evolution of the presidential campaign since the early days of the Republic highlights the remarkable democratic achievements of the last two centuries. America's presidential campaign process works. It sifts through candidates, facilitates a continent-wide conversation, and, most important, bestows legitimacy on the winner. Presidential campaigns are intense, long, and costly because they are popular, consequential, and continental in scope. Most aspects of the campaigns that Americans hate reflect the democracy we love.
The evolution of the campaign has been a process of endlessly revisiting questions about the nature of American democracy that have been with us since the nation's founding. Since George Washington coolly retreated to Mount Vernon to await his inevitable selection by a handful of elite presidential electors in 1789, America's center of political gravity has shifted from the self-chosen few to the democratic masses. The elite maneuverings of the early Republic gave way beginning in the 1830s to nominating convention intrigues, which were replaced a half-century ago by today's familiar primary-caucus hijinks. American politics evolved from elite based to boss based to people based, from nominating individuals who had mastered America's politics of privilege to selecting those who could master party politics, to anointing today's masters of media messaging.
Originally, most Americans agreed with Representative William Lowndes of South Carolina, who declared in 1822 that the presidency was not "an office to be either solicited or declined." Candidates stood silently, relatively undemocratically, for election, largely avoiding contact with the people, like kings in waiting.
A little more than a century later, one of Franklin D. Roosevelt's strategists advised him to mount a markedly different kind of effort: "You are you," he said, and "have the faculty of making friends on a campaign tour." Forty years further on, the activist campaign threatened to become too insulated and choreographed. In 1972, journalist Theodore White said he could have covered Richard M. Nixon's reelection effort by "staying home and watching television with the rest of the people--which was the way the president wanted it." In becoming democratized, bringing the people in, the process also became dependent on the news media and political consultants, which inevitably meant to some degree keeping the people out.
Standard histories of the presidential campaign emphasize a few transformative elections, such as William Henry Harrison's successful protopopulist "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" bid in 1840 and William McKinley's cleverly merchandized mass spectacle in 1896, suggesting that the nature of the campaign followed an almost inevitable course, in a series of sudden developmental bursts. Actually, it evolved slowly and imperfectly. Candidates' prominence in the campaign proved inversely proportional to party strength but directly related to the presidency's power; strong parties constrained candidates during the 19th century, while the presidency's subsequent expansion empowered them. Communication and transportation advances-- railroads, the telegraph, radio, television, and the Internet--created the necessary conditions for change, but public attitudes had to shift in order to legitimize the innovations, and strategies for applying these innovations had to emerge. …