Quinn Essay: Reporting on Political Candidates and Elections

Fac Pic Smlr
Katrina Quinn

Nineteenth-century political candidates rarely campaigned for office. More gentlemanly it would be to stay in the background, to accept the nomination out of duty rather than out of desire. But in my study of reporting on the election of 1880, which positioned Ohio Republican Gen. James A. Garfield against Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock of Pennsylvania, it is clear that campaigning certainly did take place—but it was the partisan press, not the candidates, at the helm of the campaign ship.  

The press has always been a political player. In her study of journalistic standards of the nineteenth century, Hazel Dicken-Garcia explains that the press had taken an active role in political campaigns by disseminating party ideologies, praising candidates, and taking on opponents and public issues as early as the late eighteenth century.[1]

In examining the election of 1880, however, my research uncovered aspects of electoral reporting that seem awfully familiar in the twenty-first century: covering the popular reception of post-convention candidates; providing biographical profiles that cover personal, professional, and political background and qualifications; disseminating qualified endorsements; calling for voter turnout; debunking potential liabilities; and adopting a rhetoric of victory. In many ways, the press of 1880 presented a faithful case study for “electoral campaign communication 101.”

Journalism history researchers may easily spot the connections between their subject and contemporary journalism practice and discourses, but students, less fluent in history despite a universe of information at their fingertips, might need to be inspired to discover the relevance of something so remote as the election of 1880. Therefore, this essay seeks to provide some strategies to make those connections, to explore how this study can engage students in contemporary political reporting and campaign strategies, and possibly to become more savvy consumers of media messages.

As with many research efforts in journalism history, this exploration of electoral reporting and candidate PR has significant interdisciplinary implications. Thus, these activities could be applied to journalism history classes, but also to courses in public relations strategy, political communication, and media literacy.

Suggested Class Activities and Discussions

Defining Candidates Today: Nineteenth-century political biographies, published in book form and in the press, sought to present an idealized image of candidates that would “inspire and instruct.”[2] These works covered a predictable narrative array, touching on family pedigree and background; outlining a spectrum of educational, military, and political qualifications; and presenting evidence of sound moral character.

Activity, Assignment, or Discussion: Examine a variety of campaign websites for local, state, or national candidates for office. How do today’s candidates present their life story? How do they implement narrative elements like those in the Garfield and Hancock biographies, including family background, personal experiences, and moral character? How do they address potential liabilities, such as experiential shortcomings, ideological inconsistencies, or scandals?

Visualizing Candidates: Reporting on the election of 1880 was sprinkled with physical descriptions of the candidates, including details about facial features and expressions, height, and posture. Today, few in the public rely on textual descriptions alone; instead, political figures are depicted with photographic and video images, disseminated via websites, television, print publications, and social media.

Activity, Assignment, or Discussion: Select a political figure and review visual representations of that individual published on the individual’s own website and social media accounts. How do these images, like those in 1880, reflect motifs of fitness, strength, and personal appeal? Next, review visual representations of that individual published in the media or by political opponents. How do those images differ from the self-published images? How to they challenge motifs of fitness, strength, and personal appeal? Do you detect any differences in the visual representation of male, female, LGBT, or racially diverse candidates?   

Media Literacy and Political Slant: The nineteenth century press loudly—and proudly—endorsed candidates, parties, and ideologies from unconcealed political stances. Twenty-first century media, on the other hand, seek to convey a posture of objectivity in their reporting—though the success of the media in meeting that standard is often debated.

Activity, Assignment, or Discussion: While the modern press is less likely to openly acknowledge partisanship, media watchdog groups such as AllSides collect data that ranks platforms on the tone of their coverage, from strongly liberal to strongly conservative. Find a political story on AllSides, and closely review coverage of that story from a liberal and a conservative outlet, not to see which interpretation aligns with your own views, but to detect differences in the coverage. What are the main themes that emerge in the coverage? How does coverage differ? Which of these platforms presented the more convincing approach, and why?

Campaign Tactics: The study of “Big Brains and the Solid South” argues that the press operationalized campaign tactics that have become staples of modern campaign strategy: depicting a bandwagon effect by repeatedly invoking the popularity of the candidate, disseminating qualified endorsements, and calling for voter turnout. 

Activity, Assignment, or Discussion: How do modern electoral campaigns operationalize the tactics seen in the election of 1880? Using campaign websites and online media searches, find examples of campaigns and coverage that depict a bandwagon effect, endorsements by well-known or “everyday” people, and get-out-the-vote initiatives. How do you respond to these messages? Are some more convincing than others, and why?

Bringing History Alive: Though we will never know them apart from photographs and archival newspaper reports, James A. Garfield and Winfield Scott Hancock were well-admired individuals and well-positioned candidates, bolstered by strong advocates in the press. But how would they fare today, in a political world of digital media, constant surveillance, and meticulous, no-holds-barred reporting?

Activity, Assignment, or Discussion: Assign or select a historical candidate – perhaps Garfield, Hancock, or another individual – and create a campaign for an upcoming election. How would you present this candidate to a contemporary audience? Construct a candidate profile, including potential strengths and weaknesses; issues-driven campaign messages that would resonate with voters; digital communication tactics, such as a website and social media strategy; and a list of organizations and individuals from whom you would seek endorsements. Present your campaigns to the class, and hold an election. In what areas was your candidate a winner, and in which did he or she fail?

For Further Reading

Burlie Brown, The People’s Choice: The Presidential Image in the Campaign Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1960).

Stephen Cushion and Richard Thomas, Reporting Elections: Rethinking the Logic of Campaign Coverage (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2018).

David D’Alessio, Media Bias in Presidential Election Coverage, 1948-2008 (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington, 2012).

Stephen J. Farnsworth and S. Robert Lichter, The Nightly News Nightmare: Media Coverage of U.S. Presidential Elections, 1988-2008 (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011).

Ronald A. Faucheux, Running for Office: The Strategies, Techniques and Messages Modern Political Candidates Need to Win Elections (Lanham, Maryland: M. Evans, 2002).

Elihu Katz, “Platforms and Windows: Broadcasting’s Role in Election Campaigns.” Journalism Quarterly 48:2 (1971), 304-314.

William Miles, The Image Makers: A Bibliography of American Presidential Campaign Biographies (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1979).

John Sides, Daron Shaw, Matt Grossmann and Keena Lipsitz, Campaigns and Elections, 3rd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2018).

Mark Wahlgren Summers, The Press Gang: Newspapers and Politics, 1865-1878 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).

John Tebbel and Sarah Miles Watts, The Press and the Presidency: From George Washington to Ronald Reagan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985)

About the author: Katrina Quinn is the author of “Big Brains and the Solid South: The Role of the Press in the Election of 1880” in the September 2021 issue of Journalism History.


[1] Hazel Dicken-Garcia, Journalistic Standards in Nineteenth-Century America (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 36-38, 46-48.

[2] Thomas A. Horrocks, Lincoln’s Campaign Biographies (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), 41.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s