In 1920, Warren Harding ran the last true “front porch campaign,” a major party presidential candidate campaigning primarily from home… until Joe Biden for several months in 2020.
This 1920 New York Times article explains the rationale for Harding, the Republican nominee, in trying to replicate the successful 1896 front porch campaign of fellow Ohio Republican William McKinley. Many voters wanted a change after the 1918-19 Spanish flu epidemic and World War I both killed millions.
The determination to have Harding make a front porch campaign was deliberate and calculated. It was made because that kind of campaign would continually suggest McKinley. It was not because front porch campaigning is necessarily better than stump speaking. It was to emphasize as sharply as possible the break with the recent past and the return to the past of McKinley’s time.
Around 600,000 would gather on Harding’s property in Marion, Ohio to hear him speak during the campaign, in a town of only 30,000 residents. And it worked. While Harding did make occasional speeches elsewhere, he didn’t travel nearly as widely as Democratic challenger James Cox, who visited 36 of the 48 states at the time.
During the COVID-19 pandemic and associated shutdown, Democratic nominee Joe Biden didn’t make an in-person public appearance between March 15 and May 25. But appearing on camera from home, he reached audience numbers that Harding a century earlier could only dream of. 600,000 people is small compared to the millions who watched Biden’s virtual appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and MSNBC’s Morning Joe.
This 1920 editorial cartoon by Clifford K. Berryman — not published in the New York Times — depicts that year’s Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs, who was imprisoned at the time for urging Americans to resist the draft into World War I. (That was a criminal offense thanks to the Sedition Act of 1918, but would be legal today.) Debs won 3.4% of the popular vote, though no electoral votes. His sentence was commuted in 1921 by — who else? — President Harding, who met with Debs on his way home from jail.
Harding and the Front Porch Plot
Published: Sunday, July 18, 1920