A stump speech is a speech that a politician makes again and again as they travel to different places during a campaign.
The expression dates back to early American history, when candidates would travel through the countryside building support for their campaigns. Most of the time, there weren’t any formal stages where a politician could address a crowd, so candidates stood on tree stumps to give their speeches. Today, candidates still travel around the country delivering standardized speeches to win over voters.
A typical stump speech has a lot of distinctive elements, all woven together into an appealing whole. The speech sets out the candidate’s values and their overarching plans, as well as specific campaign promises and talking points. And of course, the speech also needs to forge an emotional connection between the candidate and the voters.
Stump speeches are not intended to be newsworthy or dramatic. Normally, a candidate repeats the same stump speech, word for word, at every one of his campaign stops. The speech might change slightly depending on the audience – for example, the candidate might add a few words to the speech to mention local politicians, or to refer to a local specialty. For the most part, though, candidates deliver the same stump speech at every campaign stop, giving the audience time at the end to ask questions.
In 2015, the FiveThirtyEight blog created two “perfect” stump speeches – one for Republicans, and one for Democrats. The speeches weren’t real, but they imagined what highly pandering possible speeches for each party would look like, based on the values reflected by the majority of voters from each party.
The Republican speech, as written by former Republican speech writer Barton Swaim, focused on the need for smaller government, reduced Federal spending, and free trade. The Democratic speech, written by Democratic speechmaker Jeff Nussbaum, talked about social inclusion, income inequality, and education.
Even in the age of social media, the old-fashioned stump speech continues to be important during a campaign. During the 2020 presidential campaign, most candidates continued to use standardized stump speeches to present their talking points and to reach out to voters. President Trump’s stump speech clocks at just over an hour and touches on issues like the economy, conservative values, and tax cuts.
Some candidates, though, seemed to be moving away from the classic stump speech. After all, stump speeches are also full of potential pitfalls, since they present opportunities for candidates to make gaffes or lose their audience’s attention. Joe Biden, the Democratic frontrunner for the presidential nomination, shortened his stump speech to just 15 minutes. And Senator Elizabeth Warren replaced her own stump speech with a town hall format.
The Atlantic once cited this speech by one Phil Davidson, the would-be GOP nominee for treasurer in Stark County, Ohio, as the worst stump speech in American history. The speech is striking because of Davidson’s highly emotive delivery, even when he is discussing non-controversial subjects like his own biography. At moments, Davidson seems enraged or on the verge of tears.