A front-porch campaign is one in which the candidate stays close to home throughout the campaign. Instead of crisscrossing the country to woo voters, the candidate connects with supporters locally (by making speeches from his front porch, for example).
The term is often associated with William McKinley, who ran a successful front-porch campaign in 1896. McKinley, a Republican, won the presidency in spite of the fact that he spent almost the entire campaign at his home in Canton, Ohio. McKinley outspent his opponent, and he also had the benefit of working with one of the great political strategists of the time, an Ohio businessman named Marcus Hanna. Hanna acted as McKinley’s press agent, publicist, and reputation manager.
McKinley’s Democratic opponent, William Jennings Bryan, was an unusually active campaigner who traveled around the country calling for America to abandon the gold standard. Bryan’s speech at the Democratic national convention, in which he warned that America’s poor farmers were being “crucified on a cross of gold,” remains one of the most famous speeches in US politics, and Bryan delivered the speech in campaign stops around the country. Bryan made an estimated 600 campaign stop. Nevertheless, it wasn’t enough to win the presidential election.
McKinley wasn’t the first presidential candidate to conduct a front-porch campaign. In 1880 another Republican, James A. Garfield, ran a successful campaign from the spacious front porch of his home in Mentor, Ohio. The railroad companies agreed to build a spur line right up to Garfield’s house, and they offered a discount for crowds going to visit the candidate. Members of the press were invited to pitch their tents on Garfield’s lawn and listen to him speaking from his porch.
Visitors were also treated to scenes of the Garfield family’s domestic life: Garfield playing with his children on the front lawn; the whole family eating dinner together; Garfield’s mother pitting cherries in her rocking chair. The overall effect was of a strong, traditional family unit, an image which resonated with the country, especially in the aftermath of the troubled presidency of Ulysses S Grant.
Eight years later, Benjamin Harrison ran another successful presidential campaign from his front porch. Harrison, a Civil War general, addressed crowds of supports and curiosity-seekers at his home in Indianapolis. Harrison carefully avoided the mudslinging and harsh rhetoric that had characterized earlier campaigns; giving speeches from his front porch allowed him to seem wholesome and to stay above the fray. Meanwhile, his political campaign ran a fiercer battle against the incumbent, Grover Cleveland.
In 1920, Warren G Harding conducted a successful front-porch campaign of his own. Harding’s victory is all the more interesting because his opponent, James Cox, carried out a very energetic campaign. Cox traveled from town to town and made full use of the newly-invented microphone to address large crowds. Harding, on the other hand, stayed in his home in Marion, Ohio, delivering speeches to admirers from his round front porch. Harding won the election by a landslide.