US and UK Elections (I)

Exploring elections

At the heart of any democratic political regime is the elected Parliament. The right to elect one’s own political leaders is an expression of freedom and democracy. The Bodleian Libraries hold two major collections which offer varied resources related to the democratic process of elections: the [UK] Conservative Party Archive and the Vere Harmsworth’s Philip & Rosamund Davies US Elections Campaigns Archive. These two collections deal with entirely different countries and practices, the UK and the USA. Put together, however, they paint a broader picture that helps illuminate elections and campaigns in both countries. The material covers the technical and political work behind an election – the campaign trail, the policy making, even planning for media coverage – as well as the effort to win hearts and minds via ephemera and public media. As examples, we’ll look at the 1956 and 1980 elections in the United States.

1956: Eisenhower vs Stevenson

In 1956, Conservative Party Organisation co-Vice-Chairman Donald Kaberry travelled to Washington just before the US presidential election (Eisenhower vs. Adlai Stevenson). Kaberry visited with the intention of reporting back on the organisation of the two main political parties. His notes (CCO 60/1/1) explore the differences between the US and the UK. Kaberry talks of a general feeling of trust in Eisenhower (‘there really was a feeling by everyone met that the Mr. President would keep the country out of war’) and mentions election features such as the Democrats shoe ‘gimmick’ (and the Republicans answer to it).

He goes on to explore party organisation in incredible detail, from the layout of election offices and the legibility of canvassing books to the use of a ‘voting machine’ (‘an elaborate contraption which, when understood, is really effective’), and on to media, finance and more. Kaberry returned with folders and folders of ephemera (CCO 60/1/2-4), including ‘I like Ike’ material and a ‘Candidate’s Primer on … how to utilize radio and television effectively’. He felt that party electoral machinery in the US ‘followed very much upon the lines of our own Party Organisation here’, but noted the scale of electioneering in the US was larger and had a larger budget (with ‘hullabaloo … used to whip up enthusiasm’), while public speaking style differed completely from the UK. Despite what he claims as the UK’s ‘more grown-up habits in relation to elections’, Kaberry recommends that the Conservatives consider some US features such as a guide to TV for candidates, the ‘coffee-party meeting’ format and certain fundraising tactics.

1980: Carter, Reagan and Ted Kennedy


Two reports from the 1980 US election stand out, both as examples of the UK’s thoughts on US electioneering and as interesting influences on UK campaigning. Harvey Thomas, the Conservative Party’s Director of Presentation and the man responsible for many of Thatcher’s public appearances, was dispatched to California in the spring of 1980 to survey campaign techniques and to establish a relationship with major parties and the media. He spent days on each of the presidential candidates’ campaign trail, interviewing campaign and policy directors and making notes. Thomas’s report (CRD BOX 2211) includes evaluations of each candidate’s policy and their campaign tactics.

Thomas wrote of campaigns overall: ‘Perhaps the most significant difference is that the Americans tend to hide the issues and project personalities, whereas the English people promote issues and rarely succeed in developing personalities to win response from the public. The Americans therefore, have developed more excitement and involvement in their elections than we have normally done.’

Thomas also made notes on each of the major campaigns and their leading characters:

On the Carter/Mondale campaign: ‘My main session, with the Deputy National Field Director, was disturbing. The ruthless and impersonal approach to the campaign and the block-vote getting was chilling … My impression was that this team had a complete lack of care … and a determination to win regardless of what is required. The press pools generally agreed that the Carter/Mondale electioneering is run much better than their Government.’ This organised and determined approach can be seen in the archive at the VHL, which contains examples of leaflets from the Carter/Mondale campaign specifically tailored to groups of voters and targeting specific issues (MSS. Amer. s. 33 / 3/ 1).

On the Reagan campaign: ‘His speeches were “vintage 1979 Thatcher”. He is an individualist ... with high ideals.’

On the Kennedy campaign: ‘Unexpectedly, Senator Kennedy, whom I met briefly, and his team contrasted favourably with President Carter’s … His political record is consistent and his “caring” presentation is convincing.’

On the John Anderson campaign: ‘I spent a half day and an evening with Campaign Team members and was not impressed.’


Tomorrow, we'll explore party conventions and election ephemera, looking at their role in elections and their influence in the UK.

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