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From Railroads to Tweets – The Unofficial History of Technology and Presidential Elections

As the stakes and costs of becoming president have risen, so has the number of channels and types of media available for campaigning.  Trump was the first presidential candidate to truly harness the power of Twitter, with Obama being the first to deeply exploit social media. Just as the advents of internet, TV and radio shaped the way more recent candidates run their campaigns, so also have the technological advances of history directly influenced the elections in their respective times.

The Unofficial History of Technology and Elections

Mr. Washington – The Only Uncontested US President

As the newly formed Americans adapted to a life free from British rule, the plans of George Washington to go home after the American Revolutionary War to live a quiet life were derailed. America would have no other leader and public sentiment manifested in the form of letters by the 1000’s.

Letters poured into Mount Vernon—from citizens great and small, from former comrades in arms, even from other shores. Many told Washington that his country needed him more than ever and that there was no justification for his refusal. While he warmed slightly to the idea, he still told a friend, “I feel very much like a man who is condemned to death does when the time of his execution draws nigh.” Read more…

 

George Washington - the first and last uncontested election

The United States presidential election of 1788–89 was the first quadrennial presidential election. It was held from Monday, December 15, 1788, to Saturday, January 10, 1789.

Birth of the “Whistle Stop” – Campaigning on the Move

One of the first technologies to substantially impact how candidates campaigned was the locomotive, which would begin to replace the use of canals 40 short years later, around 1830.

American whistle stop speech

In the 19th century, when travel by railroad was the most common means of traveling long distances over the vast expanses of land as in the United States, politicians would charter tour trains which would travel from town to town. At each stop, the candidate would make a speech from the train, but might rarely set foot on the ground. “Whistle-stop” campaign speeches would be made from the rear platform of a train. Read more…

This revolutionary way to campaign to the masses during these short stops would continue to be used going into the mid 1900’s. Even effecting elections as recent as Truman’s defeat of Dewey in 1948.

Most of the national media didn’t give Truman much of a chance of winning the election. One of Truman’s campaign tactics was an ambitious 30,000-mile whistle-stop train tour around the United States. On some days he made as many as eight speeches. Read more…

Morse Code – Distance No Longer Diffuses Power

Interestingly enough, the first president to really utilize the telegraph, which used Morse code, was President Lincoln after a telegraph office was opened next to the White House in 1861. He essentially became the first wired president.

He was swept over and instantly realized the power of long distance communication during the war, so much so that he routinely spent days on end in the communication center monitoring messages and gauging the tenor of the war effort.

Using the telegraph to extend his voice was an obvious application of the technology. Lincoln made the telegraph his eyes and ears to distant fields and the keyhole into his generals’ headquarters. As he sat in the telegraph office reading messages, he gained insights, felt the pulse of his Army in the field and reacted. Read more…

He famously used Morse code to encourage Ulysses S Grant after an advance in the Civil War had stalled. Lincoln stated in that message, “I have seen your dispatch expressing our unwillingness to break your hold where you are. Neither am I willing. Hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew and choke, as much as possible.”

It’s said that the audaciousness of the message made Grant laugh and increase his respect for Lincoln. It also firmly established his position as Commander in Chief of the military during the “Civil War”, proving that distance no longer diffused power.

Morse Code Nearly Didn’t Happen!

In 1838, Morse demonstrated his invention using Morse code, in which dots and dashes represented letters and numbers. In 1843, Morse finally convinced a skeptical Congress to fund the construction of the first telegraph line in the United States, from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore. In May 1844, Morse sent the first official telegram over the line, with the message: “What hath God wrought!” Read more…

Radio & Electricity – The Magic of Immediacy

The “Telegraph” was more a function of operations and communication, but it was a related technology that would drastically evolve the Presidential election process; radio and the newly established electrical grid.

In 1920, just 35 percent of American households had electricity. By 1929, nearly 68 percent of American homes were electrified. But, if you don’t count farms, about 85 percent of Americans had electricity by the end of the 1920s. Read more…

Radio captured the imagination of thousands of ordinary persons who wanted to experiment with this amazing new technology. But in April 1917, the U.S. government shut down all amateur stations, as the country entered World War One.

The wartime consolidation of the radio industry under government control led to important advances in radio equipment engineering and manufacturing, especially vacuum-tube technology.

Then, in early 1922, a “broadcasting boom” occurred, as a sometimes chaotic mix of stations, sponsored by a wide range of businesses, organizations and individuals, sprang up, numbering over 500 by the end of the year. Read more…

Private individuals now had the ability to harness radio reception in their home. The immediacy and very essence of a candidate sprang to life in the heads of listeners who must have felt as though the speakers were right there in the room with them.

By the 1930s regulated electric utilities became well-established, providing all three major aspects of electricity, the power plants, transmission lines, and distribution. Read more…

40 Million People Tune in to Hear the First Radio Broadcast Debate

Truman, Dewey, Stassen the First Radio Broadcastd Debate

In 1948, the first radio broadcast debate was held between Dewey and fellow Republican Presidential hopeful Stassen, and was heard by an estimated 40 million people. That is roughly the equivalent of 80 million listeners today.

Dewey was considered the winner of the debate and won the primary in Oregon on May 21. At the Republican convention, Dewey won the nomination of his party. Despite the infamous Dewey Defeats Truman headline, he lost the general election to President Harry Truman, and died in 1971. Stassen became a perennial presidential candidate, running for the Republican nomination at least ten more times until his death in 2001. Read more…

Television’s Political Prominence Begins

From its early position as a new medium for political coverage in the 1950s, television quickly supplanted radio and eventually newspapers to become by the early 1960s the major source of public information about politics. Read more…

On September 26th 1960, Massachusetts Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy and Republican Vice President Richard M. Nixon faced each other in a nationally televised presidential campaign debate.

Suddenly appearance, wit, and non-verbal cues became just as important to the conversation as the words themselves. From the viewpoint of the 40% of Americans who tuned in to watch, it was no contest and would greatly impact the outcome of the contest.

Kennedy and Nixon, the first TV Debate

Kennedy Wins First Televised Debate

The debate ushered in an era in which television would dominate political campaigns. The immediacy and power of television worked well for candidates who could think on their feet and knew how to play to the audience.

At the first of four debates, Kennedy arrived looking well-groomed and confident, while his opponent Nixon, who had just been released from the hospital after two weeks recuperating from a badly injured knee, appeared haggard and was sporting a “5 o’clock shadow” or light beard.

Although he arrived in a wrinkled suit and appeared underweight and had a grayish pallor, Nixon refused the assistance of a makeup artist, a decision he likely later regretted. Kennedy clearly “won” the debate, a fact attributable to both his superior comfort level with the new communication medium and his “telegenic” good looks. Read More…

 

The Internet, Social Media, and the Presidency

In today’s political menagerie, the world hangs on every tweet uttered by Donald Trump. It simply cannot be over-declared just how important the internet and social media has become to the election process. To give you a sense of the power of this channel, note in the infographic below that 68% of voters use the internet as their primary source of information on political candidates.

advertising to win an election

Has Social Media Enhanced the Election Process?

Most definitely. One of the problems with social media, however, is that it’s often more about being “loud” then it is about the art of productive discourse, and no culprit is guiltier than Twitter.

For many critics, that DNA of Twitter makes it antithetical to sophisticated, thoughtful political conversation.
“Both the technology itself, and the way we choose to use the technology, makes it so that what ought to be a conversation is just a set of Post-it notes that are scattered,” Kerric Harvey, author of the Encyclopedia of Social Media and Politics, said of Twitter. She argues that what we do on Twitter around politics isn’t a conversation at all; it’s a loud mess. Read more…

People generally listen to information that reinforces their opinions ad beliefs. They won’t go out of their way to hear or learn about information that they are opposed to unless it is to berate and oppose that information publically.

Social Media Dilemma, Loud vs Productive

Another problem with the current incarnation of social media is that fake news spreads fast while being unapologetic, purposefully damaging, and punishing of no one due to the nature of its anonymity.

“It’s really disconcerting the scale that misinformation can achieve relatively quickly and with relatively little effort,” says Craig Silverman, Canadian chief of the Buzzfeed website. “It’s driving divisions between people … It has made it very difficult for the public square to have some reasonable debate.”

Silverman spearheaded a study recently of “hyper-partisan” Facebook pages, finding that during a two-week period, 38 per cent of news material on three right-wing pages and 19 per cent on left-leaning ones were partly or mostly false. Read more…

Sadly, the ugly face of social is becoming an all too common online occurrence these days with people hiding behind their keyboards to deliver the most stinging slurs and acidic aspersions. Read more…

In Conclusion

During the last 228 years since the first United States First Presidential election, technology has increasingly shaped the landscape of elections.

From the days of a horse-back postal system and Morse code, to the current era of internet, video chats and 140 character tweets, the importance of technology and media has never been higher. Now that the chips have fallen and Trump’s reign begins, we will have to wait four years to see how tomorrow’s technology will evolve to affect future elections.

Want to Learn More About the Future of Technology in Elections? The video entitled “Democracy Rebooted,” was a discussion held at Stanford University, which considers the role of technology in elections.

 

The Legal Intrigue Journal is a blog brought to you by Accurate Court Reporting, a nationwide legal services company using only local reporters. Visit to schedule your next video conference, deposition, or hearing.

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