by Michael Kazin
Even our best political journalists seem to know little American political history. Take their common claim that, unlike in the more sensible past, we are now assaulted by a presidential campaign that begins long before election year. As The New York Times recently reported (Jan. 22), "The contest for the White House is off to a breathtakingly early start, exposing an ever-growing field of candidates to longer, more intensive scrutiny and the increasing amount of money they need to remain viable."
In fact, since the dawn of mass parties in the 1820s, American politics--and presidential politics, in particular--has always been aggressively entrepreneurial. And, as with most markets, the personal sales effort rarely takes a break.
During the winter of 1826-7, Martin Van Buren was already organizing furiously to avenge Andrew Jackson's unjust defeat in the previous election. William Henry Harrison began touring key states over a year before the 1836 election. After narrowly losing to Van Buren, the 64-year-old military hero was soon on the road again. He knew, after all, that his party rivals Henry Clay and Daniel Webster were doing it too.
The prize for early starts probably goes to William Jennings Bryan, who just loved to campaign. A month after his defeat in 1896, Bryan and his wife published a thick account of the campaign whose title--The First Battle--made his intentions clear. His local post office flooded with thousands of admiring letters, and Bryan took off to speak to potential delegates in dozens of states. One could tell an analogous tale about the 1956 publication of Profiles in Courage, which first helped make John Kennedy a contender for the vice-presidential nomination that year and then made him one of the most popular speakers in the nation. By the time he announced for president in 1960, he was already the favorite.
All that's really new in the 21st century are the Internet and the ever-mounting cost of running a campaign that reporters and viewers will take seriously. Bryan and the Democrats spent all of $250,000 on his 1896 race. But then he lost to a Republican who spent at least ten times more.