Presidential Press: 200 Years of Campaign Posters

American Icons
on February 13, 2014

The race to the White House is paved with vibrant colors and even more colorful messaging. Beginning in 1824, presidential hopefuls began to realize the simplicity and visual power campaign posters provided voters. John Quincy Adams made the practice mainstream, but printing techniques at the time made posters a text heavy venture. As printing techniques evolved through the 1800s, campaign posters became works of art in their own right. Thirteen of our favorites, from Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama, illustrate the time-tested appeal of courting voters with graphics.

Henry Clay vs. Andrew Jackson, 1832

Andrew Jackson

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Political enemies and sworn rivals significantly colored the race between Kentucky Congressman Henry Clay and former war hero Andrew Jackson. Although Jackson touted himself as a man of the people, Henry Clay sought to deride that reputation and paint Jackson as a less-than-benevolent monarch.

Abraham Lincoln vs. Stephen Douglas, 1860

Abraham Lincoln

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Roiling secession tensions and white-hot debates regarding slavery contributed to one of the dirtiest presidential campaigns in 19th century America. Campaign posters opposing Lincoln included themes that would make modern politicos blush.

William McKinley vs. William Jennings Bryan, 1896

William McKinley

Photo Credit: The Library of Congress

Economic collateral damage from the Civil War created a monetary grudge match between former Ohio Gov. William McKinley and populist William Jennings Bryan. McKinley, the father of the gold standard in currency, defeated Brian in what would be a victory for the American business sector.

Calvin Coolidge vs. John W. Davis, 1924


Photo Credit: The Library of Congress

In one of the most conservative elections of the century, both Calvin Coolidge and Democrat John C. Davis campaigned for lower taxes and deregulation. Candidate Robert La Follette brought Populist flair, but American voters ultimately opted to “keep it cool.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt vs. Wendell Willkie, 1940


Photo Credit: The Library of Congress

Perhaps one of the most famous motifs of the 20th century, Franklin D. Roosevelt enlisted the help of Uncle Sam to convince Americans he should break tradition and stick around for a third term.

 Thomas Dewey vs. Harry Truman, 1948


Photo Credit: The Library of Congress

Then-governor of New York Thomas Dewey won a controversial primary against fellow Republican bigwigs. However, his reputation for being cold ultimately ended his chances for the presidency.

George Romney, 1968 Primary Contender

George Romney

Photo Credit: The Library of Congress

The forerunner to Mitt 2012, Gov. George Romney had a presidential look and business acumen to match. The former CEO of American Motors failed to get past the Republican Primary, but put the Romney political brand on the map.

Richard Nixon vs. Hubert Humphrey, 1968


Photo Credit: The Library of Congress

Richard Nixon not only raced against Hubert Humphrey, he combatted a well-organized Third Party machine in George Wallace. After losing to a young, suave John F. Kennedy in 1960, Nixon achieved top dog status in November of 1968.

Shirley Chisholm, 1972 Primary Contender

Shirley Chisholm

Photo Credit: The Library of Congress

The first black female congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm made waves in the 1972 race as a woman who wouldn’t be rattled. Three attempts were made on her life, and she ultimately lost a stultifying primary to George McGovern.

 Gerald Ford vs. Ronald Reagan, 1976 Primary Competitors

Ford, Credit ABC News

Photo Credit: The Library of Congress

During the 1976 Republican Primary, Gerald Ford struggled to find that je ne sais quoi of cool. Ford took a cue from the Fonz and tried to convince Americans happier days were on the way.

Jimmy Carter vs. Gerald Ford, 1976

Jimmy Carter

Photo Credit: The Library of Congress

A religious peanut farmer from Georgia doesn’t exactly sound like the usual choice for the Democratic Party. Jimmy Carter’s squeaky-clean image resulted in the creative use of his initials with a hint of sacrilege.

Ronald Reagan vs. Jimmy Carter, 1980


Photo Credit: The Library of Congress

The Iran hostage crisis and a flailing economy enabled Ronald Reagan to ask Americans about their quality of life under Jimmy Carter. He went on to beat the incumbent Carter with 489 electoral votes.

Barack Obama vs. John McCain, 2008


Photo Credit: The Library of Congress

A little-known street artist named Shepard Fairey would give campaign art major street cred. The perfect meld of powerful messaging and pop art made the Obama poster a game changer.



Found in: American Icons