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Presidential race starting earlier? Not so

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WASHINGTON — How much American political history do political journalists know? Take the ubiquitous claim, or complaint, that the presidential campaign is starting earlier than ever. Today's candidates, marveled one reporter, are subjected to "longer, more intensive scrutiny" than in the past. Why can't they emulate their predecessors and wait until election year to make their pitches and raise their millions?

Like most evocations of a golden age, this is a myth. In fact, the nearly permanent campaign has been a feature of American politics since before the Civil War, when mass parties first emerged to contend for the votes of a mass electorate, albeit one then composed almost exclusively of white men. In a nation of ambitious entrepreneurs and furious battles for market share, the race for the presidency — as with most sales efforts — has rarely taken a break.

It began with Martin Van Buren. Two years before the 1828 vote, "The Little Magician" began to build the first modern party, soon named the Democrats, in part to avenge Andrew Jackson's unjust defeat in the previous election. Van Buren secured the allegiance of influential pols up and down the East Coast and helped establish pro-Jackson newspapers from New England to Louisiana. A decade later, William Henry Harrison, who hoped to be the new Whig Party's first nominee, began touring key states more than a year before the 1836 election. Soon after losing that race (to Van Buren), the 64-year-old military hero took to the road again. After all, his party rivals Henry Clay and Daniel Webster were doing it, too.

During the final decades of the 19th century, the pace of campaigns accelerated. Fast trains, fierce competition among big-city papers and two closely matched national parties all produced a bull market for candidates seeking press attention and needing to develop a network of loyalists.

The prize for the earliest start probably goes to William Jennings Bryan. A month after his loss to William McKinley in 1896, Bryan and his wife, Mary, issued a thick account of the campaign whose title — "The First Battle" — made his intentions clear. The book was a best seller, and the post office in Bryan's hometown of Lincoln, Neb., was flooded with letters from thousands of admirers. Bryan's wife and brother used the correspondence to start a huge card file of supporters. By the spring of 1897, Bryan was wooing Democratic insiders at state party conventions.

John F. Kennedy launched his presidential campaign with a different kind of book. "Profiles in Courage," an eloquent octet of senatorial portraits that JFK edited more than authored, helped lift him into contention for the vice presidential nomination in 1956. It won a Pulitzer Prize and turned Kennedy into a modern-day Bryan — one of the country's most coveted speakers. By the time he officially declared his candidacy in 1960, JFK was leading in the polls.

Kennedy was also responsible for a critical innovation in the permanent campaign. Since Jackson's day, major candidates and their allies had built personal organizations long before any votes were cast. But once nominated, a man depended on the party apparatus to finance his race. In 1896, the Democrats spent all of $250,000 on Bryan's campaign. Not surprisingly, he lost to McKinley, for whom the redoubtable Mark Hanna raised at least 10 times as much money.

But Kennedy was graced with a wealthy father who'd been bankrolling him since his first run for Congress. A year before the 1960 Democratic convention, Joe Kennedy had already spent a million dollars on his son's campaign — including a nine-room office near the Capitol where staffers called potential delegates and party bosses and entered the results on oversized wall maps.

For the past half-century, nearly every serious candidate has followed the Kennedys' lead. Launching a presidential bid became akin to starting a midsize firm, complete with accountants, lawyers and a communications team whose "rapid responses" many old-line corporations would envy. The Internet has only made it easier and quicker to contact voters; the essentials of the campaign business were in place long before the first candidate hired the first webmaster or reprimanded the first controversial blogger.

Whether or not this nonstop sales effort is good for representative democracy, it would take a galvanic reform movement to divorce them. Several years ago Richard Gephardt, who knew the rules of the game as well as anyone, joked about a poll that found "Seventy percent of Americans neither consume nor wish to consume politics." For now, perhaps all one can do is demand that the quality of the goods live up to the hype on the packaging.

Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University, is the author of "A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan."