American Elections and Campaigns – The 1950s: “Selling the Presidency like cereal…”

While the television had been used previously in politics, the 1952 presidential election was the first that saw both mainline parties using the medium prominently. After declining the offer in the previous election, Dwight D. Eisenhower agreed to run for president in 1952 on the Republican ticket. Adlai Stevenson II – the grandson of William Jennings Bryan’s running mate – was nominated by the Democratic Party to be the president. For Eisenhower’s public image, the Republicans commissioned the Ted Bates advertising firm to craft a media campaign. Ted Bates representative Rooster Reeves gave Eisenhower personal instructions and counseling on how to conduct himself, as he was not used to giving public speeches. The cornerstone of the instructions was to shorten Eisenhower’s messages into brief, memorable sound bites. On camera, the advertising firm used lighting and camera angles to hide Eisenhower’s age and blemishes on his face. Large-print cue cards were used off camera for Eisenhower to recite the dialogue he would read out in his broadcasts. This eliminated the need for Eisenhower to wear reading glasses, which the advertising firm said made him look “too old.” To increase Eisenhower’s support at the state and local levels, a series of grassroots organizations calling themselves “Citizens for Eisenhower” were formed in towns and cities throughout the country. Canvassing their local neighborhoods, they rallied for Republicans, Democrats, and independent voters to support Eisenhower’s campaign. While successful in the 1952 election, they lacked long-term staying power, as many members did not have the same political loyalty to the mainline Republican Party as they did to Eisenhower himself. The Eisenhower campaign broke ground in being the first of its kind to directly appeal and reach out to female voters. While women had the right to vote since 1920, their turnout in elections remained relatively low in the decades afterward. It was not until the Cold War era when women were directly and consistently reached out to by political campaigns, beginning with that of Eisenhower. His direct outreach to female voters, his military experience, and his media campaign coining the iconic phrase “I Like Ike,” made Eisenhower appear like the more approachable and likable presidential candidate.

Campaign poster supporting the Republican ticket, 1952. (Public Domain)
Political poster calling for the public to vote for Stevenson, 1952. (Public Domain)

Adlai Stevenson II’s presidential campaign primarily criticized the political divisions in the opposing Republican Party. Eisenhower and his running mate – a young Richard Nixon – only narrowly defeated Senator Robert Taft for the Republican nomination. At the same time on a larger level, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy from Wisconsin was gaining national attention for his public outcries and forewarning of an alleged, large-scale communist plot to infiltrate the U.S. government and military. Heightened by the then-ongoing Korean War, the 1952 election took place during what was later termed the Second Red Scare, an era of anti-communist paranoia that permeated the United States from 1947 to 1957. The resulting climate of fear that emerged during this time led to several politicians and popular figures claiming that even the mildest of left-wing political proposals was secretly a plot by the Soviet Union to subvert the political and social values of American society. Responding to the anti-communist sentiments of the era, Stevenson II described McCarthy’s political attacks as “middle of the gutter,” and further argued that accusing political opponents of being communists was highly disrespectful to the American, South Korean, and allied military forces who were fighting against Soviet-allied armies in the Korean War. Further, Stevenson II’s campaign claimed that if Eisenhower and the Republicans were to win the election, the country would immediately plunge back into the Hoover-era poverty and misfortune brought about by the Great Depression. An additional aspect of Eisenhower’s campaign that was criticized by the Democrats was the way he was being portrayed in the media. One of the most famous elements of Eisenhower’s media campaign was the “Ike For President” television commercial. Created by The Walt Disney Company, the commercial used visually-appealing animation and an up-tempo music jingle to give the Eisenhower campaign a cheerful angle. The commercial was broadcasted several times per night in select areas in the last few weeks before Election Day. While the commercial itself was met with a generally positive reception – and in retrospect has been highlighted by some as a masterwork of political and commercial advertising – it was heavily criticized by Stevenson II and other opponents of Eisenhower. Stevenson II described it as one of the “worst things he had ever heard,” and criticized Eisenhower for “selling the presidency like cereal.”

Herbert Block political cartoon satirizing instability of the Republican Party amid Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist fervor, 1950. (Library of Congress)
Frame from animated “Ike For President” television commercial, 1952. (Public Domain)
Eisenhower campaigning in Baltimore, Maryland, 1952. (National Archives and Records Administration)

The controversies that emerged in the 1952 election were not exclusive to the presidential candidates themselves. Richard Nixon – Eisenhower’s running mate on the Republican ticket – was accused by several newspapers of receiving over $18,000-worth of undocumented political funds. In reality, these were little more than legitimate political donations added up in smaller increments. The controversy lingered regardless, as the Democratic Party accused Nixon of being a hypocrite for his constant attacks against financial corruption in the government. In response to the increasing negative press, Nixon gave a televised half-hour speech to the nation to clarify his financial situation. He disclosed that he was from a middle-class family with modest funds, and that after his brief law career and service in the Navy, he spent the majority of his time and his own money on his successful campaign for Congress in 1950. Nixon clarified that because of his modest funds, all the money that he raised from donations were used to reimburse his losses from paying for his own travel and accommodations. Complementing the earnest tone of the broadcast was his mention of receiving a dog named “Checkers” as a gift. Nixon joked that out of all the donations he received for his political campaign, he would refuse to return the dog since his daughter loved it so much. The broadcast was viewed by approximately 60 million households, the largest possible television audience of the time period. Nixon’s speech was so well-received that the Republican National Committee received millions of telephone calls and telegrams requesting that Nixon stay on the ballot for Vice President with Eisenhower, which they ultimately chose to do so. Additionally, Nixon’s broadcast introduced the phrase “Checkers speech” into the American political lexicon, used as a description for a politician’s speech which uses emotional appeals to the audience. Eisenhower and Nixon ultimately won the 1952 election in a landslide victory, earning 442 electoral votes to Stevenson II’s 89. Support was widespread across the United States, with the notable exceptions of key states in the predominantly pro-Democratic Deep South. 

Screenshot of Richard Nixon delivering his “Checkers” speech on television, 1952. (Public Domain)
Pre-printed postcard sent to people who supported putting Nixon back onto the Republican ticket, 1952. (Public Domain)

Four years later, Eisenhower and Stevenson II faced each other again for the presidency. The campaign issues remained largely the same, while Eisenhower had more political achievements to reference in his appeals for re-election. The Korean War had ended with a negotiated truce in 1953, the Supreme Court ruled against racial segregation in public schools in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, and Eisenhower commenced the creation of the Interstate Highway System in 1956. Eisenhower’s achievements – combined with the enduring legacy of his military career – helped give him a strong re-election platform in the 1956 election. Two major foreign crises that broke out in the few weeks before Election Day also helped to maintain Eisenhower’s public perception. The Hungarian Revolution saw pro-democracy protesters in the eponymous country be violently suppressed by Soviet military forces, while the Suez Crisis saw the United Kingdom, France, and Israel invade Egypt in an effort to recapture the recently-nationalized Suez Canal. The brutalities in Hungary were openly condemned by Eisenhower, but the United States did not mobilize to aid the country out of concerns of avoiding armed conflict with the Soviets. The Suez Crisis saw both the United States and the Soviet Union urge the three allied armies to withdraw from Egypt. Israel maintained control of Sinai until the following year, while France and the United Kingdom left the region, the latter losing its position as a superpower. For two major crises breaking out within weeks of each other, Eisenhower was praised by the general public for his leadership in navigating them. Both Eisenhower and Nixon were re-elected with 457 electoral votes to 73. Because of Eisenhower’s public support of the Brown Supreme Court decision, the Republican Party received its largest percentage of the African American vote in decades. Maintaining its civil rights precedent, the Eisenhower administration passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first major federal law attacking racial discrimination since 1875. Also in 1957, Eisenhower deployed the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to protect the “Little Rock Nine” – the first nine African American students to attend the newly-desegregated Little Rock Central High School – from attempts by the state of Arkansas to prevent the integration from taking place. After the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 – the first artificial satellite to orbit the planet Earth – concerns were raised in both government and military circles that the U.S. was losing scientific progress to their international rival. In response, the Eisenhower administration increased government funding for education programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. One of the larger-scale segments of this trend was the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which authorized federal funding to all American public education institutions from grade school to colleges and universities. In the same year, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, formally establishing the eponymous National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA. These major steps made by the Eisenhower administration not only furthered America’s investment in the Cold War, but it would also become an underlying element of the next decade’s presidential elections.

Photograph of the “Little Rock Nine” being escorted to school by soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division, 1957. (Public Domain)
Statistical diagram of “Explorer 1,” the first American satellite to be launched into orbit under President Eisenhower’s push for space exploration, 1958. (Public Domain)

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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