Why We Should Treasure the Almost-Endless Campaign

With less than a month left in the Campaign That Has Gone On Forever, it might be a good time for some reflection. First, last night’s town hall debate was actually refreshing because the focus remained primarily on substantive issues. John McCain and Barack Obama were at their best when they were giving honest answers directly to the people in the audience; they were less effective when they used their answers as opportunities to take swipes at their opponent, as John McCain was particularly intent upon doing.

But we also need to pause to acknowledge that as tiresome as the endless campaigning may seem, too much campaigning is better than no campaigning. When our country first began, it was considered “unseemly” for a candidate to speak up for himself. With no national media (and certainly no YouTube) a candidate relied on a few friends to write letters on his behalf. Of course, the voting pool was limited to a number of landholding gentlemen, so getting the word out must have been somewhat easier at that time.

Later, political parties stepped in to mastermind the talking, and instead of putting the candidates on the road, they sent out stump speakers. In the 1830s and 1840s, the parties sponsored barbecues with multiple speakers that were big successes; local newspapers described the events by citing the number of acres filled by the crowds.

The custom of campaigning first changed in 1860. At that time, the country was torn apart by the slavery issue, and candidate Stephen Douglas felt the situation was desperate; he wanted to step out and make his opinions known. Since candidates were supposed to run “silent” campaigns, Douglas decided he needed an excuse for a trip north, so he announced that he was going to visit his mother who lived in Clifton Springs, New York. The Republicans got wind of this dodge and came up with a flier to put Douglas in his place. The flier was distributed widely and read:

“A Boy Lost! Left Washington, D.C. some time in July to go home to his mother. He has not yet reached his mother, who is very anxious about him. He has been seen in Philadelphia, New York City, Hartford, and at a clambake in Rhode Island. …He is about five feet nothing in height and about the same in diameter the other way. He has a red face, short legs, and a large belly. Answer to the name of Little Giant, talks a great deal, very loud, always about himself…”

Until the end of the 19th century, the custom of campaigning changed very little. If campaigning took place, it did so from a candidate’s “front porch,” and this obviously limited the reach.

No matter how we may tire of the sound bites that keep popping up from both the presidential and vice presidential candidates, we actually should be grateful that our current system involves what it does. The campaigning and the ever-present news coverage provide voters with opportunities to view the candidates responding to lots of people and commenting on a wide variety of issues. But more important, while we’re doing a lot of “listening to them,” they are listening to us–a very important part of a good candidate’s campaign process. In less than a month, we’ll be able to vote for the person whom we feel listened the best.

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