Inspired by the New-York Historical Society’s huge collection of campaign buttons, as well as the upcoming election, I have chosen to study the evolution of presidential campaigns through the 20th century. As I’ve been watching the campaign commercials of the Republican nominees, I’ve been struck by the degree to which presentation has trumped content.
This is a pattern I’ve observed over the course of the last three elections, and when I arrived at the N-YHS I found I had the perfect opportunity to explore when and how this phenomenon began. As a result, I’ve chosen to study the campaigns of three individuals in particular. Chosen for their use of personality politics and their campaigns’ emphasis on presentation, Al Smith, John F Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan are the focus of my study. I hope to explore the significance of Al Smith’s Roman Catholicism, as well as his New York roots. In the 1960 election, I hope to explore the appeal of JFK’s youthfulness, as well as the controversy surrounding his Catholicism. Finally, in the 1980 and ‘84 elections, I want to explore the significance of Reagan’s charisma and his use of idyllic 1950s imagery.
I think this project will be particularly interesting because it will allow me to gain a better understanding of the mechanics of the current presidential campaigns. The goal of campaign tactics is for the candidate to appear spontaneous and honest. As a soon-to-be voter, I think it is very important for us to look beyond this facade, and be aware (and appreciative) of the elaborate orchestration and manipulation involved.