Political parties introduced to American presidential elections several
informal practices that have no constitutional definition. Instead, they
complement the Constitution by providing an effective means to select candidates
of proven ability and national reputation.
Early on, presidential candidates were chosen by a few influential party
members who assembled in state and congressional caucuses. It became clear
by the late 1830s, however, that this process did not appear democratic
enough to the thousands of newly enfranchised voters. Thus was born the
curiously American ritual of the quadrennial national party convention.
From the beginning, conventions were highly stylized and emotive affairs,
partly reminiscent of religious revival meetings and attended by an enthusiastic
cross section of the party's faithful. A convention's primary function was
not always to select a candidate but to reconcile competing factions and
unite the party behind the nominee. As part of this reconciliation process,
convention delegates drafted a statement of party principles a platform that
represented the views of those assembled. Candidates would pledge to uphold
their party platforms, but seldom have elected presidents used these principles
as a basis for enacting their legislative agendas.
Woodrow Wilson campaign poster, 1912.
National conventions became less important in the candidate selection
process by the mid-twentieth century, as reformers within both major parties
advocated a series of state primaries as a means of more actively involving
the party rank and file. Once they became widely adopted, primaries virtually
guaranteed to establish major party nominees well before the national conventions
American political parties also transformed the national presidential campaign
into a colorful spectacle. An eclectic mixture of American popular culture
and politics, the national campaign pitted the major parties in a titanic
battle to market their respective candidates to the wider electorate.
Around 1840, national campaigns began to surround the presidential election
process in an atmosphere of unrestrained hoopla. The party faithful marched
in torchlight parades; sang official campaign songs; devoured adoring campaign
biographies; subscribed to party newspapers; and displayed buttons, banners,
ashtrays, mugs, and every manner of memorabilia emblazoned with the name
and image of their candidate.
Whig Candidate William Henry Harrison is portrayed as a humble farmer
and military hero in this pen box illustration (1840).
These seemingly frivolous efforts were directed toward a very serious
end: convincing as many voters as possible to cast their ballot for the
party's nominee. Because of peculiarities in the Electoral College system,
a difference of only a few thousand popular votes was often enough to garner
a candidate the total count of a state's electoral votes and possibly the