A Brief History Of The Political "Outsider"

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Breaking News! Non-political, outsider candidates are shaking up the polls! Anti-establishment figures are challenging deeply connected insiders! Public trust in government is abysmal! Insider candidates are scrambling to get out! 

Quick: Are we describing this year...or most election years?

Pundits may be proclaiming this the "Year of the Political Outsider" (hear our deconstruction of that notion here) -- but the allure of the Washington "outsider" goes back as far as our political system. And while there are plenty of examples of legitimate political outsiders (third party candidates and the like) there are even more examples of mainstream politicians portraying themselves as such to gin up support. Here are just a few.

1828: The Writer vs The fighter

In 1828, Andrew Jackson ran against incumbent John Quincy Adams. Adams was a former secretary of state and son of President John Adams, aka the quintessential insider. He was dubbed “His Excellency” by critics. Jackson was no stranger to politics himself (having served in both houses) but he ran on his military record and reputation as a bare-knuckled frontiersman. His supporters framed it as the "writer" versus the "fighter." Jackson won by a landslide.

 Listen: "The Hunters of Kentucky" (Andrew Jackson Campaign Song)


1860: Lincoln The Railsplitter

When Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election, it was as "The Railsplitter" candidate, emphasizing his working class roots. Lincoln had in fact split rails in his youth -- although that had been before the eight years he spent in the Illinois House of Representatives, two years in the US House of Representatives, and the many years as a lawyer.

Lincoln was a Washington outsider, especially compared to his rival William H. Seward, who was the former governor of New York and a sitting Senator. But the focus on the rails was chosen by Illinois Republicans. Illinois politician Richard J. Oglesby said the rails were chosen as "one thing in Mr. Lincoln's unsuccessful career as a worker that could be made an emblem...[to] make enthusiastic the working people." [The Smithsonian.]

Listen: "Lincoln and Liberty" (Abraham Lincoln Campaign Song)


1872: Grant The Tanner

Ulysses S. Grant’s 1872 campaign posters portrayed him as a tanner and his running-mate Henry Wilson as a shoemaker. Neither was either.

In fact, Grant’s campaign was underwritten by Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Cooke, and John Astor. But it worked: Grant was re-elected. (Although it wouldn't have mattered much in the long term: his opponent, Horace Greeley, died before the electoral votes were counted.)

1880: "Farmer" Garfield

James A. Garfield, who was in fact born in a log cabin, played up his outsider credentials in this campaign poster by depicting himself as a scythe-wielding farmer, mowing down falsehood, calumny, and fraud.

1888: His Grandfather's Hat

The suspicion of legacy politicians was constant. Benjamin Harrison won the election in 1888, but his opponents used this song to suggest that he was merely coasting on the credentials of his grandfather, former President William Henry Harrison:


Harrison attempted to distance himself from his grandfather's legacy but his team decided otherwise. In fact, they embraced the exact same hat metaphor... except they insisted that it did fit. Huh.

1924: "Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge"

Even into the roaring twenties, the image of the ideal politician as an ordinary person of humble origins carried currency. Here’s a Calvin Coolidge campaign song from 1924, playing up his humble New England beginnings:


Here's an equally fantastic version performed by veteran Broadway and film star Howard Da Silva and his "Ward Heelers" from the early 60s:


1976: Hello, Jimmy!

The appeal of the outsider politician may have been eternal -- not so the reality. Up until the late 1960s a candidate could boast all he wanted of his folksy upbringing, but he still had to be selected by the party leaders in those smoke filled rooms. This all came to a head at the notorious 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. After that year's nomination fiasco, the number of state primaries was increased and reforms were instituted intending to open the primary process. The result: Jimmy Carter wins the 1976 election, running as a peanut farmer and Washington outsider and on a platform of reform. 

Listen: "Hello Jimmy" by Waynne Phillips and Hootchy Kootchy Dream Band

Hello Jimmy

1984: Ronald Reagan, Outsider-In-Chief

In his 1980 campaign for re-election, Carter's camp seemed to forget their successful "outsider" strategy of 1976. This left the door open for Ronald Reagan to beat Carter at his own game, winning the 1980 election as a Washington "outsider" and setting off eight years of an "outsider" in the White House. Even when running for re-election in 1984, Reagan managed to portray himself as the "outsider":


The rest is (ongoing) history. Bill Clinton ran as an outsider. So did George W. Bush. Barack Obama. And now....well, you know.

"Honorable" Mention: 1960 - Click With Dick vs. High Hopes for Jack

Neither was positioning himself as an "outsider" per se, but both Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy relied on the timeless tradition of crafting a catchy campaign song to excite the public.

John F. Kennedy had the legendary Frank Sinatra on his side, singing "High Hopes":

And Richard Nixon had, er, "Click With Dick."

Click With Dick


JFK won. Big time.

Special thanks to WNYC's Andy Lanset for the Carter and Nixon archival material; Oscar Brand; Smithsonian Folkways; and the Miller Center.