Two Roads to the White House
One candidate was born in Kentucky, moved with his family to Indiana, and then settled in Illinois. The other was born in Hawaii and moved with his mother first to Indonesia and then back to Hawaii, before ending up in Illinois.
One was self-taught before he studied for the bar exam with an attorney. The other graduated with honors, from one of the nation’s most prestigious universities and then from one of its most noted law schools.
One served four terms in the Illinois state legislature and one term in the U.S. House of Representatives before running for president in 1860. The other was elected four times to the Illinois state senate and once to the U.S. Senate before his 2008 presidential campaign.
Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama had very different life histories before running for president. But what about their actual road to the White House?
Campaigning in the Modern Age
President Obama campaigned in the modern age. Every speech, appearance, and debate was caught on camera, with each word analyzed by television, radio, and Internet pundits. He spent more than $700 million through the primary campaign and general election—a record likely to be surpassed in the 2012 election.
To win the nomination, Obama had to defeat eight other more experienced candidates. His chief rival was New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the two clashed in more than 50 caucuses or primaries. (After he was elected president, Obama would appoint Clinton as Secretary of State.)
Obama started strong with three wins in January. On “Super Tuesday,” February 5, 2008, he captured 13 of 22 primaries or caucuses and a slight majority of delegates, though Clinton won big in California and New York. Obama then had 12 consecutive victories to take a commanding lead in delegates. He officially clinched the nomination in June 2008.
The Democratic National Convention, held in late August in Denver, was a carefully orchestrated event staged by the Obama campaign to celebrate his nomination, crowned by a rousing acceptance speech the final night.
Lincoln the Moderate
Like Obama, Lincoln faced rivals with more experience. Like Obama, his chief opponent was a famous senator from New York (William H. Seward). In its mechanics, though, Lincoln’s road to the nomination was completely different. Primaries did not exist. Delegates were not chosen by popular vote but selected—and controlled—by state party bosses or state party conventions.
Early on, Lincoln established himself as a moderate. His debates against Stephen A. Douglas showed him as firmly opposed to the spread of slavery to new territories—the preeminent Republican issue at the time. He positioned himself as a sober politician who would not push an abolitionist agenda and who endorsed other Republican aims, such as a homestead bill and a transcontinental railroad.
Lincoln also had another advantage in that the 1860 Republican convention was held in Chicago, a bustling metropolis in his home state. His shrewd campaign manager, Judge David Davis, used this “home-field advantage” to pack the convention hall with loud Lincoln supporters. Davis also made promises of Cabinet posts—against Lincoln’s instructions—to three party leaders to secure their support.
The rival Seward received the most votes on the first ballot, 173 1/2, but was far short of the 233 needed to win. Lincoln finished a strong second at 102. On the second ballot, Seward gained 11 votes, but Lincoln jumped by 79 to pull nearly even. With the third ballot, Lincoln gained still more on Seward. Four more Ohio votes went to Lincoln, and the nomination was his. Every candidate who ran against Lincoln eventually became a member of his Cabinet; Seward was appointed as Secretary of State.
Unlike Barack Obama, Abraham Lincoln did not deliver a victory speech to the convention. He wasn’t even in Chicago during the convention. He was home in Springfield, Illinois, monitoring the news by telegraph. Lincoln wrote his acceptance speech to the party a few days later, and the historic election of 1860 was on.