- From Garfield to Harding: The Success of Midwest Front Porch Campaigns by Jeffrey Normand Bourdon
The front porch campaign holds a unique position in US presidential history. It rests in a transitionary position between a time when candidates refused to campaign and when campaigning became a ubiquitous part of American politics. Jeffrey Normand Bourdon takes up the task of investigating each of the four front porch campaigns, mostly through the lens of newspaper coverage. While his work does not have an explicit thesis, it appears he is attempting to chronicle how these campaigns had a limited run of relevance before exigent societal changes made front porch campaigning not only insufficient for effective campaigning but also no longer an indication of reluctant candidacy, a by-product of the Founding Fathers’ example. As Bourdon explains, Warren G. Harding, the last front porch campaigner, had to abandon his ineffective front porch campaign to stump on the road. He argues that as the Great Depression set in, asking people to visit your front porch rather than going to the voter was not the message candidates wanted to disseminate. And with the rise of the radio, mass-marketing, and improvements in transportation, voters were becoming accustomed to information and products coming to them.
The first front porch campaign was James Garfield’s in 1880. According to Bourdon, the Republican candidate wanted to position himself as unique from the current president, Rutherford B. Hayes, who refused to campaign in 1876. By staying home, Garfield could be more active in his election bid without appearing too ambitious. He could also distinguish himself as the Republican frontrunner despite being overshadowed by James Blaine and Roscoe Conkling. Having voters come to him allowed him to campaign and spread his message through newspaper consumption while using his home as a center for party meetings.
Benjamin Harrison became the next candidate to take up the mantle of front porch campaigning by inviting people to his then small town of Indianapolis. According to Bourdon, this was pursued to counter what was perceived to be an ineffective campaign by James Blaine in the previous presidential election. Of particular note was the extent to which Harrison perfected the process of giving handshakes. He even claimed to have accomplished “over sixty shakes a minute.” This direct appeal to the people seemed to push the candidate farther away from the traditional reluctant candidate ideal of the Founding Fathers. [End Page 101]
The McKinley front porch campaign has often been remembered less for its uniqueness and more for its juxtaposition against his opponent’s strategy. William Jennings Bryan receives a lot of attention in the historiography for breaking a mold of the reluctant candidate, shamelessly campaigning to win over Northern workers who might connect with his Southern farmer supporters.
Many years passed between McKinley’s and Harding’s campaigns, and by the time Harding was running for president, front porch campaigns were passé as active campaigning lost many of its negative undertones. By 1920, many viewed it as a traditional form of campaigning from a bygone time. But front porch campaigns were no longer viable.
Bourdon’s book effectively chronicles these four front porch campaigns with information that explains the nature and uniqueness of each one. There is a distinctness that comes out each time, with an impending sense of why these campaigns were not viable long-term.
The principal source of Bourdon’s data comes from newspaper accounts. While this is an effective way to capture the story of these campaigns, the author would have been better served to consider, or make explicit, a strategy for dealing with the biased interpretations of these varied accounts. He does make a distinction of how Republican papers helped carry a message that Democratic papers did not seem to replicate, but he nonetheless seems to take some of the more flattering accounts from partisan papers at face value. For example, he uses the Indianapolis Journal and Painesville Telegraph alternately throughout parts of his...