June 2, 2015

1956. The Campaign Circus

Organizing Political Mayhem
"Caricaturist George Wachsteter takes this view of the CBS-TV political commentators at work" (1956). Featured are Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow, Robert Trout, Bill Downs, Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, and others.

Bill Downs

CBS Washington

Organizing Political Mayhem

The highlight of the hullabaloo that characterizes the political campaign for Middletown, USA is the night that the presidential candidate makes a major speech in the municipal auditorium.

The local politicians sweat blood. The last minute emergencies seem to spring out of the floor. At least one lady in the "Women for Runninghard" organization gives up in a faint. The competition among the local bigwigs to be on the reception committee sometimes leaves scars that last for years. And usually someone always forgets to put a pitcher of water and a glass on the speaker's stand.

The big moment arrives. The dignitaries assemble on the station platform. The local brass band, which incidentally will also play the campaign song of the other candidate when he hits town—goes into its carefully planned list of tunes. The town's biggest Cadillacs are drawn up to receive the visiting politicians. And at the tail end of the procession there is a transit bus marked "Press, TV and Radio."

The train pulls in on schedule. Middletown policemen keep the small fry out from under its wheels. Local photographers and radio and TV broadcasters close in to record the event. The Candidate steps off the train wearing the same broad smile that he has worn in a score of towns.

Shakes hands. Shakes hands. Grins. Shakes hands.

Meanwhile behind him the campaign train disgorges several hundred people. Secretaries, speechwriters, economists, farm experts, and just plain politicians.

The reporters traveling with the candidate carry their typewriters, cameras, tape recorders, briefcases, and whatever other tools of the trade and immediately head for the bus. They already have the advance of the Middletown speech. Their job now is to check it, pick up local color, and try to assess in a very few hours just what is the political flavor of the town.

The Chief of Police signals to the motorcycle escort which roars into the lead, sirens whining. The Candidate is taken to the best local hotel, best suite, given the chance to wash up and meet some more dignitaries, and the time arrives to leave for the speech.

The party faithful give a big ovation. The introductions, to meet radio and television time commitments, happily are brief. There may be a dinner featuring creamed peas. Always creamed peas.

The Candidate makes his speech. He says his thanks. The Cadillacs and bus appear mysteriously from nowhere. The entire party of some 300 to 400 persons pile in, pile off again at the station, climb onto the train. The train pulls out, leaving behind the hand wavers and the same band playing the same tunes.

Half of Middletown has had its big day. The other half will celebrate when their own Candidate arrives and substantially repeats the same process.

The phenomenon that is the American political campaign has followed this general pattern since the days that highways and railroads permitted reasonable travel by men seeking votes and public office. In the past thirty years, radio and the airplane have facilitated and sped up the campaign and the number of people to which a candidate can personally make his appeal.

The impending 1956 campaign will see the use of television adapted to campaign techniques as it has never been before. Both the Republican and Democratic parties have already optioned time on all major networks to make their key appeals.

But at the base, no matter what the media, the organization of a presidential campaign in these United States remains substantially the same as it was in the days of Abraham Lincoln. The Candidate and his party must present his personality and the party principles to as many citizens as possible and hope to win their approval.

Over the years, the art of winning voters has developed into what amounts to a science. And this science under our political system receives its major test every four years when the American people choose a president.

At one time in our history it might have been that organizing a presidential campaign was something like putting a circus on tour. However, the concept of a campaign manager as a kind of combination of P.T. Barnum and a travel agent has changed. The modern campaign manager, characterized in the person of the present White House Press Secretary James Hagerty, must be able to read and assess the scores of charts and statistics of recording votes, opinions, and preferences supplied to him by his party's national committee.

Many times he must speak and act for his candidate on every conceivable subject in such a manner that will not embarrass the campaign or his man personally. He acts as the final arbiter on speeches, introductions, and endorsements. As the campaign progresses, the campaign manager acts as social secretary, alter ego, and sometimes father, mother, and brother to his man. And toward the end of the ordeal, the manager's main job is to get the candidate through election night alive, healthy, and able to make what he hopes will be an inspiring speech of acceptance.

The successful campaign manager must also know how to lose with grace and dignity.

Hagerty handled the two unsuccessful Dewey campaigns in 1944 and 1948 before organizing the Eisenhower victory. In this coming contest he does not like to be referred to as a "campaign manager," although you can be sure that the Hagerty touch will be evident in every move made by the Republicans to reelect the President. The GOP 1956 race will be unique in the Mr. Eisenhower believes that, as president, it would be undignified and debasing the office for him to appear before the citizens he governs as a politician seeking votes. He believes the the incumbent must run on his record in office and the principles for which he has employed in serving that office. Thus the citizens going to the polls in November will approve or reject him and his conduct of the nation's affairs, not just cast a vote for a man and his personality.

However, no one, and particularly the GOP politicians, is going to play down the Eisenhower grin or charm in this contest whether the President thinks it dignified or not.

The major political parties never stop organizing their campaigns from one election to the other. The Democratic and Republican national committees keep permanent staffs to keep records, collect data, and make surveys.

When Thomas E. Dewey was defeated badly by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, the GOP National Committee shook itself down again and started to work on the congressional elections. You remember Republicans controlled the 80th Congress in 1946, good evidence of the importance and value of continuity and continuing work in the national headquarters.

Certainly there are struggles within both national party organizations. In the Republican headquarters in 1952, it was between the Taft forces and the Eisenhower adherents. In the Democratic organization, it is a running battle between the Southern conservatives and the Northern liberals. The national committee is the so-called neutral battlefield where these internal forays are fought. The battles are settled at the national conventions.

While all this is happening between elections, the organizing for the next campaign goes on.

This spring, both the Republicans and Democrats began seriously collecting ammunition for their fall vote drives. Many people don't realize it, but the issues which the candidates will debate, the time and place where they appear, and even the words they are likely to say were all decided a year or six months before either man received his party's nomination. It's all part of organizing the campaign.

For example, in May of this year the Democratic National Committee sent out a questionnaire to every one of their party's senators, congressmen, state governors, National Committee members, state directors, and county chairmen asking a dozen questions which will vitally affect the type and extent of the campaign their candidate will pursue. The Democratic professionals do not know who the candidate will be, but the political vital statistics will be ready for him when the convention chooses the man this August.

This questionnaire asks these politicians to designate his area's four most important cities where the presidential or vice-presidential candidate might appear. It asks for the ethnic makeup of these areas as to race, religion, and background. The Democratic leader is asked to designate the three most important issues in his area from a list of some 25 subjects ranging over taxes, farm problems, civil rights, high interest rates, foreign policy, part-time presidency, and the polio vaccine.

The Democrats ask their people across the country searching questions on economic and farm conditions as well as labor and management problems, and are concentrating this year on the plight of small business.

The Republican National Committee employs its own professional public opinion poll-taking and research organization using the same techniques and often the same methods as the Gallup company and similar concerns.

The GOP organization had its women's division organize what it calls the "Poll Takers of America," a group of amateurs who last winter operated in 47 of the 48 states under the direction of Republican state and county leaders. The winter floods canceled the question drive in Connecticut.

Some 15,000 Republican women polled some 250,000 persons across the country on September 25. The answers were kept confidential. The instructions to the poll takers specified that they should "smile, be brief, and be friendly." The poll takers were told to identify the poll as a Republican party venture only if asked. If the one questioned then says "I'm not going to answer questions for the Republicans," the reply should be: "You'll be doing a real service for your country because our administration wants its policies to be what all the people want."

Democrats say that this poll was conducted with loaded questions such as the opening query that read, "Most Americans agree that the aim of our foreign policy is to work with other countries for a just and lasting peace. Do you think that the Eisenhower administration is doing a good, fair, or poor job in this field?"

The GOP National Committee did get some valuable information on a number of general attitudes from the questions. And the Republicans were able to put out a publicity release statement that the administration's efforts to secure peace met with "overwhelming approval" of the nation's voters.

At the same time that the Democratic and Republican politicians are researching the nation for problems and issues for the campaign, other experts study election results for the so-called "critical areas" which often determine just where the candidate will concentrate his campaigning.

These are 63 Republican "critical" or "marginal" districts across the country—that is, districts where the GOP candidate won by less than five percent of the vote. There are 31 "marginal" Democratic districts in which the Democrats won by less than five percent.

For both parties, the "critical areas" stretch across the country literally from Maine to California, and include areas of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, Kansas and New Jersey. Depending on last minute assessment of the party's chances of swinging a district by perhaps the personal appearance of a candidate, then it will be to that area that the campaign itinerary will lead.

Organizing a campaign is a complex, difficult, and often thankless business.

The organizer who gets the least thanks of all is the "advance man" who precedes the candidate and tries to make certain that all possible arrangements are completed. It's a delicate and diplomatic job. Not only must he expedite the final arrangements, he must also see that the presidential candidate does not unwittingly become involved in a local political scrap of which the number is myriad.

Consequently, leaders of all party factions must get an even break. The wives must not be neglected and the major campaign contributor must—repeat must—get the candidate's gladdest hand. If anything goes wrong with the advance man's arrangements even though he is not there, he usually gets the blame. Usually he's a jump ahead of the candidate hoping each day that "this time everything will work out."

The advance man's job is considered so important that the GOP National Committee has put out a whole manual on the job. Its secrets are so politically delicate that this book of instructions is kept under lock and key.

Each successive campaign is different, and this 1956 drive for both Republicans and Democrats will be no exception.

The national conventions are being held later this year—the Democrats in Chicago on August 13, the Republicans a week later in San Francisco. The result is that the campaign organizers will have less time to plan before the traditional Labor Day kickoff for their individual candidate. This will present difficulty, particularly for the Democrats.

On the other hand, the Republicans feel themselves doubly blessed in the upcoming campaign. Barring unforeseen difficulties, they have their candidate in the White House and their planning is ahead of schedule.

The Democrats know what they are up against in trying to beat the incumbent. The president running for reelection has, in effect, a built-in political organization around him. Since every move and statement by his administration is in a sense political, every cabinet member and every member of his staff act as his spokesmen. Every bill that he signs or vetoes becomes a political document. Every word that he utters ranks somewhere in the category of campaign oratory.

As one Democratic politician pointed out somewhat wistfully, "In this country, only twice has the incumbent in the White House been removed from office by an election." The two were, however, Republicans—William Howard Taft and Herbert Hoover.

In the last presidential campaign, General Dwight Eisenhower traveled 51,000 miles by train, plane, and automobile. Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson traveled 32,000 miles. At the end of the line, both men said they would never like to go through the ordeal again.

However, in the second volume of his memoirs Years of Trial and Hope, former President Harry Truman speaks of the 1948 whistle-stop campaign during which he virtually single-handedly snatched the election away from Governor Dewey. Mr. Truman says he traveled 31,700 miles in 35 days of campaigning and made 356 speeches—an average of ten a day. "I believed...that people still prefer to make up their own minds about candidates upon the basis of direct observation, despite all the claims of how society depends today upon newspapers, radio, and other media of communication."

The new medium of television was not developed eight years ago to the extent it is now. If the 1956 campaign proves anything, it may prove whether the era of the old-fashioned "whistle-stop" campaign is truly ended.

The Republicans have announced that they are going to depend on electronics and modern means of communication to put across their candidate—both his policies and his personality. Also, after his heart attack it is unlikely that Mr. Eisenhower would subject himself to a campaign ordeal such as the one he undertook four years ago.

The two frontrunners in the struggle for the Democratic nomination have both adopted the personal appearance, hand-shaking technique in the primary contests, and both are known to feel that "whistle-stopping" by train, plane, and automobile is an effective—if tiring—way to get votes.

Right now both the Democrats and Republicans are as organized as they can be. Come Labor Day, hold onto your hats.