Monday, April 26, 2010

Lincoln for President (The 1860 Campaign)

After the run-off elections on April 13th, I came back to Austin and picked up Lincoln for President by Bruce Chadwick. I received this book for Christmas and have finally gotten around to reading it. I have previously read John C. Waugh's Re-electing Lincoln about Lincoln's campaign in 1864, which is a very intriguing tale, and when I came across Chadwick's work back around Thanksgiving, I knew it was a book I needed to have.

Chadwick's primary motive, as he states in the prologue, is to dispell the idea that Lincoln was the beneficiary of a Democratic split and did not have to work to achieve the Presidency. The book goes into detail about the methods Lincoln used to achieve his Presidential ambitions, including his speaking tours on behalf of other candidates across the country - candidates who would later help him reach his goal. 

Campaign histories are always interesting to me, because it's always fascinating to see how much campaigns in the United States have remained to some extent unchanged. We still use many of the same tactics and strategies even though the technology has evolved significantly. In 1860, mail played as an important part of communicating to voters as it does today (granted there are difference in what is being mailed - today's copy is more sophisticated than yesteryear's circular) - to inform voters of a candidate's biography, their opinions on the issues, and reinforce a certain image of the candidate (Lincoln as the common man - the rail-splitter).

One thing that is different are the battles for the nomination at the convention. With our modern primary process, the nomination is determined long before we reach the conventions in August. The backroom deals, the plotting and the chicanery which take place at the conventions have all the elements necessary for political drama. The convention of 1860 is certainly no exception. Lincoln was not even a major contender for the Presidency - he was not even included in a newspaper poll of 21 possible candidates [p. 66] - going into the convention but his handlers secured the outcome in his favour through deals, manipulation and trickery - essentially stealing the nomination from the better known and more popular William Seward (who would eventually become Lincoln's Secretary of State). One of the things Lincoln's men did was print up counterfeit convention tickets and gave them to Lincoln supporters who arrived at the convention early, and when the real ticket holders - many of whom were backing Seward - arrived, they were turned away [p. 85].

What really set Lincoln apart from his 3 opponents was that he had a good ground game and a strong message. Compared to the message of his opponents which largely focused on slavery - specifically pro-slavery (which was odd for Southern Democrat nominee John Breckenridge who was opposed to slavery), the Republican message focused on raising tariffs and the Homestead Act while largely down playing the issue of slavery. This message appealed to workers and farmers throughout the North. They also focused on states they could win, i.e., the Northern states, and thus, did not waste resources.

One interesting aspect of this race was that Stephen Douglas personally campaigned across the country for the Presidency which had never before occurred. Most candidates for President stayed home and allowed their surrogates to campaign for them. Douglas did both and thus set a standard which our modern day candidates certainly follow. This cross-country tour lead Douglas on an ill-advised campaign stretch through the South, possibly costing him New York and denying Lincoln the Presidency. 

What is interesting is how close the election really was in the Northern States and how close Lincoln came to losing the Presidency if not for the hard work of his campaign to get out the vote and sticking with their strategy.

If I taught a class on campaign management, I would have this as required reading.

No comments:

Post a Comment