by Geri Zabela Eddins

It is nearly impossible to miss the relentless advertising and media frenzy that characterize modern presidential campaigns. Today presidential candidates work tirelessly with their campaign staff and supporters–often for over a year–in their quest for the White House, proclaiming their unique visions for America throughout the long months of primaries, speeches, party conventions, and debates. The candidates seem to be everywhere–we see their names emblazoned on brightly colored signs dotting neighborhood lawns and their faces smiling sweetly on the nightly TV news as they exploit free media attention while mingling with voters in coffee shops. Though modern presidential campaigns invade our homes in a multi-media avalanche, our country’s earliest contenders communicated at a much-slower pace–political news traveled mostly through conversations at local taverns and post offices, as well as through newspaper articles and editorials. Westward expansion, population growth, and technology have changed the nature of campaigns dramatically, but many of the tactics and strategies we bemoan today actually originated very early. James A. Thurber writes in Campaigns and Elections American Style, “Campaigns are wars, battles for the hearts and minds, but most importantly for the votes of the American people.” Presidential campaigns as wars or battles seem an appropriate metaphor when we consider the extensive strategies and negative tactics employed by presidential candidates to win the nation’s highest office. And yet a campaign is also an elaborate form of entertainment–a stage show–with the players often acting as puppets whose strings are being pulled at precise moments behind the curtain. Strategy and, yes, manipulation take center stage as a candidate and his or her staff determine how to package and promote their finely tuned message, where to campaign to guarantee the most number of votes, and how to best spend the campaign funds. From simple slogans to well-choreographed speeches, presidential campaigns–past and present–demonstrate an uncanny willingness to do almost anything to persuade the people.

No Campaign Needed: Washington Is a Shoo-in
Early Campaigns Get Dirty
Gaining Support from the Ground-Up: Grassroots Campaigns Emerge
Recreating an Image: William Henry Harrison’s Log Cabin Campaign
Sitting on the Front Porch . . . and Winning the Election
Star Power: Celebrities Endorse Their Candidates
Technology Revolutionizes Communication and Campaigns
Fact or Fiction: Casting a Critical Eye on Campaigns
Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
Activity Suggestions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
Reference Sources

No Campaign Needed: Washington Is a Shoo-in

When it came time for the newly born United States to elect its first president, everyone knew George Washington was the best man for the job. Not only had Washington led the Continental Army to victory in our fight for independence from the British, he had also presided over the Constitutional Convention that gave birth to our new democratic government. Washington had proven himself to be not only a strong leader, but a national hero. No campaign was needed to convince anyone. Washington therefore ran unopposed and was subsequently elected unanimously–not once, but twice in 1789 and 1792–making Washington the only presidential candidate to be elected by a unanimous vote.

Early Campaigns Get Dirty

Diverse opinions about everything from building roads to confronting foreign aggression stoked the fires of dissent among early federal leaders, and they quickly sought to promote their unique visions for the country by organizing political parties. The straightforward elections that put Washington in office were quickly abandoned to the annals of history. The Federalists desperately wanted John Adams to succeed Washington, and the Democratic-Republicans preferred that their candidate, Thomas Jefferson, become our second president. Remarkably, the candidates themselves were prohibited by late eighteenth-century social conventions from campaigning on their own behalf in public. Although today we expect our political candidates to proudly proclaim their superiority in school gyms and factories from Alaska to Florida, two hundred years ago such behavior was considered inappropriate. Promoting oneself was not respected, and publicly criticizing an opponent was completely unacceptable. In fact, in the years following Washington’s presidency, most presidential candidates simply stayed home after they were nominated and awaited the results.

Although society’s strict rules dictated the candidates’ behavior, they did not apply to their supporters. Adams’ supporters fought a vicious battle in the press with those who championed Jefferson’s candidacy. Jefferson was slammed as an atheist and a “mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Adams was condemned as a monarchist who sought to become a king; he was also branded as a fool and a hypocrite. It was this 1796 race, in fact, that introduced Americans to the practice of mudslinging–the usage of insults, false stories, and political “dirt” against an opponent. The ruthless nature of the Adams-Jefferson contest ripped apart a friendship the two men had nurtured as they served together as ambassadors and members of the Continental Congress. Such a sacrifice is not unknown in our modern campaigns as we continue to witness the intense desire of political hopefuls who seem willing to sacrifice anything–their families, friends, and even their own integrity–to get elected.

As luck would have it, the voting procedures in place at the time made Adams president and his political rival Jefferson his vice president. It was the worst possible match. Jefferson kept his eye on the executive seat and then ran against Adams in the following election. The 1800 rematch remains the only time an incumbent president has run against his vice president. To better his odds, Jefferson dug deeper into his bag of dirty tricks and hired a “hatchet man”–the controversial political journalist and pamphleteer James Callendar–to continue discrediting Adams in the press. Callendar declared that Adams was determined to make war with France and that only Jefferson would keep the nation at peace. He also attacked Adams’ character, trashing him as a “strange compound of ignorance and ferocity, of deceit and weakness.” Adams chose not to disgrace himself by engaging in hatchet work; however, he and the Federalist-controlled Congress did exploit the rising conflict with France by passing four laws known jointly as The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The Sedition Act outlawed “false, scandalous, and malicious attacks” against Congress and the president. Callendar was soon arrested and convicted under the Sedition Act. Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans cried foul, proclaiming the act to be a violation of free speech and warning that the Federalists were unleashing a “reign of terror.” Callendar’s libelous fictions landed him in jail for nine months, but they also helped put Jefferson in the executive office.

In the 2008 campaign Republican candidate John McCain blasted his opponent Democrat Barack Obama as “eloquent, but empty” and “a confused leader.” Obama countered by attacking McCain as a leader who “represents the failed policies of yesterday.” In the 2012 campaign to decide the Republican nominee for president, candidate Newt Gingrich initially declared that he would run a “clean campaign about real issues.” But after placing fourth in the Iowa caucus, Gingrich swiftly changed tactics.

Voters who watched the campaigns of the 2016 presidential candidates  witnessed a continuation of caustic commentary. Republican candidate Donald J. Trump consistently disparaged his opponents and was not shy from insulting their physical appearance or demeanor. In one interview Trump insulted rival candidate Carly Fiorina by saying, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?”

As the presidential incumbent in 2019, President Trump has not shied away from attributing negative nicknames to his Democratic rivals, referring to former Vice President Joe Biden as “Sleepy Joe,” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders as “Crazy Bernie,” and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Goofy Elizabeth Warren” and the racial slur “Pocahontas.” Yet, Trump’s opponents have not withheld their own punches. Warren has referred to President Trump as “corruption in the flesh.”

Watching the sarcastic campaign speeches and misleading TV ads demonstrates that the early negative campaign tactics of mudslinging, name calling, and passing the blame are not trapped in the past. We continue to accept the sharply barbed criticism opponents fling at each other as a norm. Campaigns also continue to hire their own “hatchet men,” although now we refer to them as invisible surrogates. Invisible surrogates are paid to dig up dirt about opponents and create doubt. Some surrogates are not publicly authorized by the campaign, however, and choose to work independently to smear a candidate. In the 2004 election, for example, an independent group of Vietnam veterans opposed to John Kerry ran a deliberately misleading series of TV ads that cast doubt on Kerry’s heroism during the war. The “swift boat” ads hit their mark and undermined Kerry’s aspirations.

Independent organizations continued their attempts to mislead and undermine campaigns in 2008. Commercials sponsored by the National Rifle Association (NRA) falsely claimed that Obama planned to ban handguns and the use of a gun for home defense. An ad sponsored by the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund insisted Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin “actively promotes” the killing of wolves from airplanes, a practice the group condemned as “brutal and unethical.” Whereas the NRA appealed to gun owners’ sense of constitutional rights, the Wildlife Action Fund ad appealed to the softer, emotional side of animal lovers. According to, the NRA ad is not simply misleading, it “distorts Obama’s position on gun control beyond recognition.” Regarding the Wildlife Action Fund ad, writes that, although it provides a “description of Palin’s position that is essentially factually correct, [it is also] incomplete.” Instead of painting the entire picture so voters can determine their own opinions, the Wildlife organization chose to mislead and distort its facts by relating only half of the story.

In the wake of the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which eliminated most restrictions on spending for political purposes by corporations and unions, Super PACs have created their own relentless stream of TV ads to promote presidential candidates independently of each candidate’s campaign, adding more flames to the political fires. Quite often the TV ads run by a Super PAC denigrate the opponent of the candidate the Super PAC supports. The Super PAC Restore Our Future, for example, ran millions of dollars of ads in Iowa maligning Newt Gingrich by denouncing his “baggage” and his ethics violations, all to further the cause of his opponent Mitt Romney. Although Romney did not win in Iowa, the ads worked to deflate Gingrich’s campaign; he placed fourth. Yet Gingrich was not without his own supporting Super PAC. Buttressing Gingrich’s candidacy was the Super PAC Winning Our Future, whose video titled “When Mitt Romney Came to Town” portrayed Romney as a “predatory corporate raider” who “destroyed [the American dream] for thousands of Americans and their families.” notes that the video “presents a one-sided, often distorted and misleading view of Mitt Romney’s years leading the venture capital firm Bain Capital.”

Gaining Support from the Ground-Up: Grassroots Campaigns Emerge

The 1824 election pitted four members of the same party, the Democratic-Republicans, against each other, making this election every bit as contentious as the Adams-Jefferson races. Andrew Jackson won more electoral votes than any of the other three candidates, but not the majority (more than one-half of the total votes) needed to win, so the decision was thrust upon the House of Representatives. Jackson believed that since he had won most of the electoral votes that the House would follow that lead and make him president. He was wrong. Instead, they chose his runner-up, John Quincy Adams. Jackson was furious.

If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, then neither does it possess the fury of a presidential candidate who believes he was cheated. Declaring that Adams had negotiated a “corrupt bargain” to steal the election, Jackson quickly resigned his Senate seat and organized a new party–the Democrats. The Democrats began work immediately to create an unprecedented plan to win the next election. They established national and state-level committees and then launched a comprehensive, broad-based assault aimed at informing and courting all citizens in venues way beyond the press. For the first time, Americans from all walks of life were encouraged to actively participate in politics, making this the first-ever grassroots presidential campaign. (A “grassroots” campaign originates and operates from the people, rather than being organized by government officials or people with power.) The Democrats celebrated Jackson as a military hero who had risen from a life of modest means. Jackson did not campaign openly, but worked behind the scenes, allowing the Democratic Party to orchestrate events. Not only did supporters gather at rallies, parades, and picnics, they also produced campaign souvenirs to publicize his candidacy, such as medals, clothing buttons, and flasks. To exploit Jackson’s nickname of “Old Hickory,” his supporters planted hickory saplings throughout the country.

Adams’ supporters did not sit idly by. Although the National Republicans did not attempt to match the flurry of activity and excitement generated by the Democrats, they did retaliate with their own deluge of campaign tokens (mirrors, sewing boxes, and ceramic tiles), as well as negative ads. One negative tactic employed by Adams was to print posters that portrayed the war hero Jackson as a murderer. One poster, titled “Some Account of some of the Bloody Deeds of Gen. Jackson,” displayed lines of dark coffins that symbolized what many believed was the unnecessary deaths perpetrated by Jackson during his military career. Although the educated and distinguished incumbent had many supporters, Jackson’s humble beginnings (he was the first president who had been born in a log cabin!) and promise to return government to the common people ultimately appealed to more Americans. Jackson subsequently won the 1828 election in a landslide.

The lesson learned from Jackson’s grassroots campaign success may best be summarized as “Think Nationally, Act Locally.” With an eye on the White House, modern presidential contenders continue to gain huge momentum through grassroots efforts by establishing field organizations, often at the precinct level, whose mission is to identify and register voters, communicate information about the candidate and his or her message, and recruit and coordinate additional supporters. Former President Bill Clinton’s campaign organized a precinct-level field model in 1992 with a standardized message distributed from the top down that was so successful at gathering widespread support that the campaign recruited a staggering number of volunteers–over ten million. Such a number may seem unbelievable, but voters who admire a particular candidate and respect his or her message often turn their passion for a candidate into action by volunteering. Volunteers help support the paid staff not only by encouraging people to vote, but also by spreading the candidate’s message–in casual conversations, campaign phone banks, and even through email, Twitter feeds, text, and Facebook messages. Many campaigns continue to actively recruit volunteers and supporters the “old-fashioned” way, by mailing brochures, meeting shoppers outside grocery stores, and pounding the pavement in neighborhoods across America. However, technological advances made in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have made mobilization of the grassroots easier and faster through radio, TV, the Internet, and smart phones. Technology has enabled candidates to distribute their messages directly into people’s homes not only to solicit more votes, but to also generate activism and financial support.

Recreating an Image: William Henry Harrison’s Log Cabin Campaign

Although our ninth president William Henry Harrison is doomed to be remembered as the president who served only thirty-two days, the hallmark of his legacy resides with the innovative and deceitful strategy he invented to win the presidency. Harrison was a son of wealth and political prestige whose resume included a college education, as well as a valorous career in the military and public office. Nothing about Harrison was ordinary. Yet, when a Democratic newspaper printed a remark portraying the presidential hopeful as lazy and wanting nothing other than to hide in a log cabin and drink alcoholic cider for his remaining years, he and his supporters recognized a golden opportunity. They quickly transformed the disparaging comment into an effective campaign slogan: “Log Cabin and Hard Cider.” Harrison brought the campaign slogan to life by distributing a dizzying array of log cabins big and small–log cabin trinkets, log cabins on posters and newspapers, log-cabin shaped mugs filled with cider, and even real log cabins built as Whig party headquarters around the country. The down-to-earth message was well received by the public who appreciated this image of Harrison as a humble veteran living happily in a log cabin and welcoming all visitors with mugs of hard cider. In addition, this vision of Harrison contrasted nicely with the elitist attitude that many associated with his opponent, the incumbent President Martin Van Buren. Ironically, Harrison had never lived in a log cabin. In fact, his current residence was a spacious mansion in Ohio. Nevertheless, Harrison made the most of his everyman image as he campaigned actively around the country and inspired a record number of men to vote. For the first time, the Whigs won both the popular vote and the electoral vote.

An additional innovation attributed to Harrison’s robust 1840 campaign was the creation of a campaign song that literally sang his praises while also belittling his opponent. The song became so popular that its title–“Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”–is remembered even today as a catchy campaign slogan commemorating Harrison’s candidacy. “Tippecanoe” referred to Harrison’s perceived success at the Battle of Tippecanoe, and John Tyler was Harrison’s running mate. Although the mission of Tippecanoe was achieved (thwarting the Native American leader Tecumseh’s attempts to establish an Indian confederacy), using Tippecanoe as a victory song may be considered almost as misleading as the “Log Cabin” slogan since the troops under Harrison’s command suffered many more casualties than the Native Americans.

Harrison’s strategy for recreating his image into an everyman was so successful that most candidates continue to tweak their image to project a similar approachable persona, someone who understands everyday realities like the cost of a tank of gas or a gallon of milk. In the summer before the Iowa caucuses, candidates converge on the Iowa State Fair in their polo shirts or shirtsleeves to meet and shake hands with the thousands of voters who flock there each year. Savvy candidates take time to slurp lemonade and sample such culinary staples of the state fair as fried peanut butter and jelly and pork chops on a stick. In 2015 Republican candidate Mike Huckabee opted to help flip the pork chops on the grill, and candidate Carly Fiorina endeared herself to locals by wearing a pink plaid shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders—visibly sweating through his simple button-down shirt—attracted the largest crowd for his soapbox speech, the political highlight of the fair in which each candidate stands on an actual soapbox to make his or her pitch to the crowds. Such a performance is commonly identified as Plain Folks, a propaganda technique in which a candidate pretends to be one of the common people to demonstrate that he or she can relate to the average Joe’s and Jane’s of mainstream America.

Many presidential hopefuls are not content to simply portray themselves as average citizens. Candidates often go beyond the everyman image to create an idealized portrait of themselves that further appeals to voters. From day one of the 2008 campaign, Obama cast himself as THE agent of change, declaring himself as the “change we need” and beseeching voters to “vote for change.” His opponent John McCain consistently reminded voters of his status as “true American hero” based on his military service and experiences as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. McCain also painted himself as a “maverick,” a Senate rebel willing to confront corruption in Washington and to defy fellow Republican leaders when he feels they are straying onto the wrong path.

Sitting on the Front Porch . . . and Winning the Election

The construction of railroads enabled presidential candidates to travel easily from state to state throughout the nineteenth century, but even with mass transportation widely available two candidates made the unusual decision to campaign from home. James Garfield welcomed hundreds of flag-waving visitors–many of them simply curious to see an actual presidential contender–to his home in Mentor, Ohio. From his front porch, Garfield spoke to the people while his wife served cold drinks on the lawn. Garfield won the 1880 election, so in 1896 fellow Ohio native William McKinley followed his lead and invited voters to his home in Canton. McKinley’s campaign was much more controlled, however. His staff insisted on evaluating potential visitors rather than allowing unpredictable crowds of Americans to show up in the front yard for a rowdy party. McKinley was also carefully briefed in advance regarding the topics he was to discuss with his pre-approved visitors of the day. The front-porch strategy was successful for McKinley even though his opponent made hundreds of speeches to millions of people around the country. McKinley’s win cannot be attributed simply to his staying at home, however. Many Republican leaders spoke around the country on his behalf. Plus, his campaign manager raised millions of dollars, which allowed them to produce substantial amounts of advertising, including flyers printed in several foreign languages so that new immigrants could read them.

Star Power: Celebrities Endorse Their Candidates

Democrat Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign gained a huge publicity boost when cultural icon Oprah Winfrey freely pledged her support and pleaded with other Americans on national TV to vote for him. Although this was the first campaign endorsement ever offered by Winfrey, in every campaign cycle since 1920 Americans have witnessed an endless stream of celebrities contribute their time and talents to generate excitement and votes for candidates. In 2016 the candidates continued to seek out celebrity endorsements. Republican candidate Ben Carson enjoyed the support of rapper Kid Rock, and his opponent Donald J. Trump boasted the endorsements of actor Gary Busey and professional wrestler Hulk Hogan. Republican contender Ted Cruz was supported by playwright David Mamet and actor James Woods. Popular music icon Katy Perry entertained and rallied audiences for Democrat Hillary Clinton, including at the Democratic National Convention.

The practice of recruiting celebrities to endorse a campaign was first envisioned by Florence Harding. Florence was the first spouse of a presidential hopeful to play a significant role in a campaign, and it was her idea to recruit popular movie stars and celebrities to endorse her husband Warren Harding’s campaign. The Hardings executed a front-porch campaign, and to help attract crowds Florence engaged movie stars and celebrities, including singer and movie star Al Jolson, to stop by and visit their front porch in Marion, Ohio. News photographers often snapped pictures of the Hardings standing side by side with the celebrities, providing additional free publicity.

Candidates are also eager to attract endorsements outside of Hollywood. Testimonials from business tycoons, popular politicians, military leaders, and even newspapers, unions, and other widely supported organizations help to solidify a candidate’s message and credentials within different constituencies. High profile leaders who believe strongly in a candidate’s message may also choose to work as a surrogate and speak on the candidate’s behalf. In 2016 Republican candidate Jeb Bush was supported by a range of veteran surrogates (including General Keith Alexander, Lieutenant General John Blount, and Illinois congressman and Iraq war veteran Adam Kinzinger), all of whom stumped for Bush in the early voting states to emphasize his national security policy. On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, of the 11 remaining Republican candidates, Bush enjoyed the greatest endorsement support in Congress, followed by Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie. And despite Donald Trump’s rise to the Republican nomination, endorsements of his campaign by current and previous federal officials were remarkably low when compared to the endorsements bestowed upon Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Technology Revolutionizes Communication and Campaigns

The turn of the nineteenth century ushered in dramatic advances in technology that made communication with greater numbers of people possible. By 1800 over 150 newspapers were being printed in the U.S., and by the mid-1830s passenger railroads were available up and down the east coast. The ease of traveling far distances on the railroad enabled McKinley’s opponent, William Jennings Bryan, to reach millions of people in what has become popularized as a whistle-stop tour–a cross-country train trip in which the candidate stopped at up to twenty towns a day to give brief speeches from the train platform. Though Bryan lost his election bid, fifty years later the whistle-stop strategy was instrumental to Harry S Truman’s campaign success. Truman traveled over 30,000 miles to publicize his Fair Deal programs. Candidates travel mostly by private jet today, but Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton have also embarked on their own whistle-stop tours as a nostalgic means of meeting voters and generating free media coverage.

Many other technologies have revolutionized presidential campaigns. Radio became common in the 1920s, and it was radio that enabled candidates to reach more Americans than ever before. As a result, American men and women from all walks of life were better informed and subsequently began voting in record numbers. In the following decade TVs were introduced to American living rooms. In 1952 Dwight Eisenhower became the first candidate to exploit this new technology by appealing to voters in a series of 20-second commercials that showed Eisenhower answering questions posed by citizens on the street. Though many idolized the war hero, these TV ads demonstrated Eisenhower’s ability to communicate easily with ordinary people. TV enabled candidates to not only spread their messages in commercials, but to also demonstrate their debate skills. Millions of Americans watched Richard Nixon debate John F. Kennedy in 1960, but the new technology produced a surprising result. TV viewers were convinced that the young, handsome Kennedy had outperformed the pale and weary-looking Nixon, but those who had listened to the debate on the radio disagreed. Without the visual images informing their opinions, radio listeners were able to focus solely on the debate itself, and the radio listeners were confident that Nixon had outshined Kennedy.

TV remains a powerful force for reaching voters. Candidates exploit free air time as the news media covers party conventions, debates, and stories about the campaign trail. Candidates also pour millions of dollars into slick, customized ads that not only promote their message, but also condemn or satirize an opponent. Beyond the box of TV lies the wonderland of the Internet, which transmits up-to-the-minute poll numbers to our smart phones in the speed of light. Increasing access to computers and Wi-Fi connections has crowned the Internet as another vital resource in spreading information, raising money, and rallying voters. Hillary Clinton actually launched her presidential bid in 2008 with an Internet video message. A new technological trend also initiated in 2008 was the creation of pages on the social network Facebook as well as personal campaign websites to relate extensive information about the presidential hopefuls’ backgrounds, policies, and goals. On campaign websites supporters chat with each other, donate money to the campaign, and purchase campaign t-shirts and bumper stickers from the online store. In 2016 and now in 2019, the social networking messaging service Twitter is playing a pivotal role in the campaign rhetoric as candidates and their surrogates use it to not only share quick news of their own events and policy initiatives, but to also tweet their personal reactions to opponents’ interviews and campaign ads as soon as they are released.

Fact or Fiction: Casting a Critical Eye on Campaigns

With both feet in the present and a backward glance at the past, Americans can recognize the many common threads that are woven throughout campaign history. Though most of us groan about the overwhelming negativity of modern campaigns, those threads were spun very early, right after Washington’s presidency, when profound ideological differences degenerated into monstrous forms of mudslinging and backstabbing. The acidic insults and outright lies perpetrated in the early press undoubtedly made it difficult for the public to discern the candidates’ true positions. Deception plummeted to a new low, however, when William Henry Harrison chose to carefully craft an engaging, but utterly false, story about himself to attract and win voters. Intertwined with Harrison’s deception was his recognition that connecting with average citizens, as his predecessor Andrew Jackson had successfully done, would help win the most votes. A candidate’s decision to present oneself as a common, approachable person greatly influences how he or she chooses to campaign–Garfield was thrilled to meet voters on his front porch; Harry Truman shook hands enthusiastically across rural and urban America from the back of a train, and, with a nod to nostalgia, John McCain crisscrossed America on a bus christened “The Straight Talk Express.” Savvy voters can easily recognize when a candidate’s gestures and messages are intended to manipulate rather than inform. Still, to wield the amazing power of our vote effectively, it is always helpful to take two steps back and cast a critical eye on the strategies, tactics, and propaganda woven seamlessly into the multi-layered fabric of a campaign so we can make informed decisions.

Parents, teachers, and librarians can work with children from a very early age to not only encourage political curiosity, but to also teach them healthy skepticism and critical thinking skills that can serve them in all of life’s decisions. Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out provides the perfect springboard for engaging youngsters in the discussion of history and the importance of the democratic vote in America. Reviewing magazine ads and TV commercials that market services and products directly to children with youngsters and asking them to question how they appeal to them lays the groundwork for critically reviewing political ads in the future. Older youngsters may be surprised to learn that many of the techniques used in spinning toothpaste and toys, such as leaving out critical facts and appealing to authority, work equally well in crafting campaign commercials. In their book unSpun: Finding Facts in a world of Disinformation, Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson provide a five-step process to thinking critically: “keep an open mind, ask questions, cross-check, look for the best information, and then weigh the evidence.” By helping young people understand the importance of separating their emotions from their decisions so that they can openly question claims and sources, you can teach them to think critically by separating fact from fiction.

Fact is a project supported by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania that “aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.” Read unbiased, nonpartisan analysis of current campaign ads, debates, speeches, interviews, and news releases at:

Read the “Fact Checker” column in The Washington Post, whose goal is to serve as a “‘truth squad’ [of] the national political debate in the period leading up to the 2008 presidential election” at:

Check out even more intensely researched articles at PolitiFact, which is a project of the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly designed “to help you find the truth in the presidential campaign,” at:

Read presidential campaign slogans at:

Read more about the history of political memorabilia, including buttons, medals, pins, and postcards, and view pictures of these political tokens from the Ohio Historical Society at:

View pictures and descriptions of presidential campaign memorabilia from the Duke University Special Collections Library at:

Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom

  • Think about a candidate whose message you value. What does the candidate say that intrigues you? Are the candidate’s words, tone, and actions respectful?
  • What is the responsibility of the voter? How much and what kind of research should a voter conduct to make an informed decision?
  • Do you believe that campaign commercials are truthful? Do they mislead in any way? If so, what are some ways a commercial might mislead voters?
  • Identify negative campaigning techniques you have observed. Do you think they are warranted? What does negative campaigning say about America? Is it a problem? How can we change it?
  • Do you think it is fair for organizations other than presidential campaigns and parties (such as religious or environmental groups) to produce ads and commercials promoting a candidate or a position? Why or why not?
  • What do you think about the role Super PACs are playing in this year’s election? Are their TV and online ads fair? Most of the Super PACs have ambiguous names. A few examples are Make America Great Again, Keep the Promise, The Right to Rise, and Priorities USA. Do you find these names informative? Misleading? How so? Can you determine which candidate each PAC supports from its name? How might you choose to change or improve each PAC’s name?

Activity Suggestions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom

  • The League of Women Voters lists and explains eleven different campaign techniques, such as evading real issues and loading statements, in their free online guide called “Electing the President.” Review the list and discuss examples in political campaigns and even in product advertising that demonstrate these techniques.
  • In their book unSpun: Finding Facts in a world of Disinformation, Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson provide a five-step process to thinking critically: “keep an open mind, ask questions, cross-check, look for the best information, and then weigh the evidence.” Use these steps while watching a campaign commercial or presidential debate. How is it helpful?
  • Read unbiased, nonpartisan analysis of current campaign ads, debates, speeches, interviews, and news releases at: This website is a project supported by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania that “aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.” Discuss an analysis of one commercial or debate that provided insight you did not expect. What surprised you?
  • What slogans do you remember? To see a list of presidential campaign slogans, go to: Which slogans do you think are the best? Which slogans would you change? How would you rewrite them?

Reference Sources


Adams, Simon. The Presidents of the United States. Princeton, NJ: Two-Can Publishing, 2001.

Chappell, Warren, and Robert Bringhurst. A Short History of the Printed Word. Point Roberts, Washington: Harley & Marks, 1999.

Jackson, Brooks, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation. New York: Random House, 2007.

The League of Women Voters. Choosing the President. New York: Lyons, 1999.

McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Morris-Lipsman, Arlene. Presidential Races: The Battle for Power in the United States. Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century Books, 2008.

Saffell, David C. The Encyclopedia of U.S. Presidential Elections. New York: Franklin Watts, 2004.

Thurber, James A., and Candice J. Nelson. Campaigns and Elections American Style. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2004.

Volume Library. Nashville: Southwestern, 1998.

Wagner, Heather Lehr. How the President Is Elected. New York: Chelsea House, 2007.

Wright, Jordan M. Campaigning for President. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

Online Resources

Editor’s Note: Website links listed in angle brackets are no longer available.

“American President. An Online Reference Resource.” 1 August through 10 September 2008.

“Barack Obama makes whistle stop tour through Pennsylvania.” 10 September 2008.

“Bush Boosts Trump Attacks, Calling Rival a ‘Chaos Candidate’ by Jordan Frasier.” 16 Dec. 2015.

“Celebrities for Bernie: Sanders scores vs. Hillary Clinton in endorsements by John Petkovic.” 16 Nov. 2015.

“Disgrace, Influence Peddling and Other Debate Charges.” 25 January 2012.

“Electing the President: A Guide to the Election Process.” 27 January 2012.

“The Endorsement Primary by Aaron Bycoffe.” 01 Feb. 2016.

“ Recent Postings.” 26 September 2008.

“Facts Strained in ‘King of Bain.’” 27 January 2012.

“The First American Newspapers.” 18 August 2008.

“Founding Fathers’ dirty campaign.” 22 August 2008.

“In Final Push, Jeb Bush Deploys Veterans Coalition Into Iowa by Elaina Pott.” 28 Jan. 2016.

“A guide to Trump’s nicknames and insults about the 2020 Democratic field.” 24 Sept. 2019.

“At rally, Warren decries Trump as ‘corruption in the flesh’.” 24 Sept. 2019.

“It’s the Super PAC Era.” 26 January 2012.

“James Moore–Texas Expert on Rove–Discusses Political Surrogates, Rovian Tactics, and Win at All Cost Campaigns in 2008.” 1 September 2008.

“John and Abigail Adams. American Experience.” 26 September 2008.

“McCain turns to attack Obama.” 26 September 2008.

“Newt Gingrich removes “anti-immigrant” Romney ad after scolding by Sen. Marco Rubio, other Hispanic leaders. “ 25 January 2012.

“Political Memorabilia.” 19 August 2008.

“Presidential Campaign Candidates 1952-2008: 1952 Eisenhower vs. Stevenson.” 29 September 2008.

“The Presidential Candidates Are Chowing Down at the Iowa State Fair: Here’s What They’re Eating by Tierney McAfee.” 18 Aug. 2015.

“Romney ad attacks Gingrich on Freddie Mac.” 25 January 2012. <>

“Trump mocks Fiorina’s physical appearance: ‘Look at that face!’ by Neetzan Zimmeram.” 09 Sept. 2015.

“20 memorable political moments at Iowa State Fair by Jennifer Jacbos.” 24 Aug. 2015.

“The White House Historical Association: Timelines–Technology.” 18 August 2008.

“William H. Harrison.” 27 September 2008.

©2019 Geri Zabela Eddins; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance