The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden campaigns from his basement. Harding ran for president from his porch.

In 1920, thousands flocked to Warren Harding’s home in Marion, Ohio, to hear him speak.

Six thousand people gather to hear Warren G. Harding speak from the porch of his home in Marion, Ohio. (AP)

“If you want to be elected, stay at home during the campaign,” a U.S. senator from Colorado joked to the presidential candidate.

“That fits right in my idea,” replied Sen. Warren G. Harding (R-Ohio). In 1920, Harding ran the last “front porch” campaign by a U.S. presidential candidate from his home at 380 Mount Vernon Ave. in Marion, just north of Columbus.

A century later, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is challenging President Trump from the basement of his Delaware home, where he has been sheltering in place during the coronavirus pandemic. Trump is preparing to head out of the White House for the first time in weeks, starting with a weekend trip to Camp David.

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Both men are itching to get out on the campaign trail with rallies and speeches. Harding’s goal was exactly the opposite: “to restore the dignity of the office” of president by avoiding the “barnstorming, water tank speech and [railroad-car] tail end platform business.”

Presidential candidates not only sat home but didn’t even campaign before 1840, when Ohio’s William Henry “Old Tippecanoe” Harrison became the first to give speeches with a campaign of carnival-like rallies. In 1880, Republican James Garfield campaigned from his farm in Mentor, Ohio. In 1888, Republican Benjamin Harrison, William Henry’s grandson, ran from his house in Indianapolis. Harding patterned his campaign after Republican William McKinley, who in 1896 campaigned from his front porch in Canton, Ohio.

Republicans nominated the 54-year-old Harding, the publisher of the Marion Star newspaper, at their Chicago convention on the 10th ballot. The handsome, silver-haired senator had one thing going for him, his campaign manager said. “He looked like a president.” His running mate was Massachusetts Gov. Calvin Coolidge.

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Harding’s campaign theme was “a return to normalcy” after the turmoil of World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic.

Instead of going to the people, he had the people come to the large, curving front porch of his wood-frame house in Marion, a town of about 30,000 residents.

Visitors paraded through town to the house, where crowds often numbering in the thousands sat in chairs or stood on the front lawn. The plush green grass had been replaced by white crushed limestone. The flagpole from McKinley’s home was planted in the Harding yard.

At the first gathering in mid-July, an airplane flew over the house and dropped a floral wreath. Harding gave a speech calling for unity. A headline in one Montana newspaper declared: “On Front Porch, Harding Voices His Platitudes.”

The reviews soon got better. Visitors ranged from political and business leaders to Civil War veterans and 3,000 traveling salesmen. In August, members of women’s groups joined Harding to celebrate ratification of women’s suffrage. “I rejoice with you,” Harding said.

Later, Harding made news by promising to create a Department of Public Welfare. He hinted that he would name a woman to the Cabinet post. He called for “equal pay for equal work.”

Another day five delegations of “Negro Republicans,” including several Baptist ministers, came to the porch. The visitors pleaded for an end to lynching.

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Drawing one of the biggest crowds was the appearance of Broadway performers joined by the “Harding Porch Jazz Band.” Famed singer Al Jolson emceed. Invoking the image of Theodore Roosevelt, Jolson sang, “We think the country is ready, for another man like Teddy,” and, “We need another Lincoln, to do the nation’s thinkin’.”

The Chicago Cubs visited Harding, and baseball fans followed. In his speech, Harding pressed his case in baseball terms. He said Democratic President Woodrow Wilson had “muffed disappointingly in our domestic affairs and then struck out in Paris” trying to create a League of Nations.

The affable Harding and his wife, Florence, eagerly shook hands. Florence Harding, known as “the Duchess,” posed for an estimated 10,000 photographs.

The porch campaign peaked in mid-October, when 50,000 people paraded to a ceremony honoring first-time voters, including women, college students and immigrants. More than two dozen bands serenaded Harding for two hours. College cheerleaders sitting on the porch roof and perched in trees led the crowd in singing campaign songs.

Meantime, Harding’s Democratic rival, Ohio Gov. James Cox, was campaigning by train in 36 of the 48 states. Cox was the publisher of the Dayton Daily News, and his running mate was New York’s Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Cox said he was “carrying his front porch” to the country, while his opponent continued “his self-isolation in a small Ohio community,” the New York Times reported. Cox claimed Harding was “wiggling and waggling” on the top issue of the day: whether the United States should join the League of Nations.

Harding left his front porch on occasion, speaking in 16 towns in Iowa and Nebraska. In Des Moines, he declared his view on the League of Nations: “I favor staying out.” His policy, he said, was “America first.”

By October, Harding was far in the lead. His front-porch campaign had drawn more than 600,000 people. He eventually went on a two-week speaking tour to the South and New York and through Ohio to help Republican House and Senate candidates.

There was one more speech in Marion on Nov. 5, when thousands of supporters stormed the Harding porch to celebrate the senator’s landslide victory.

Harding didn’t make it to the end of his first term. In the summer of 1923, after a bout of flu, the president took a cross-country train trip. On Aug. 2 in San Francisco, he died after a heart attack.

Harding’s legacy was tarnished by scandal following his death. In 1927, it was ruled that his interior secretary secretly sold drilling rights to federal oil wells in Teapot Dome, Wyo., to private oil interests.

In 1927, young Nan Britton published a book claiming she was Harding’s mistress and gave birth to his daughter. Decades later, love letters were uncovered showing, in a Stormy Daniels-like moment, the Republican Party in 1920 had paid another Harding high-society mistress to take a long voyage until the election was over.

None of this was known to the public when more than 100,000 people, led by President Coolidge, flocked to Marion for Harding’s funeral. At the house with the famous front porch, the Associated Press reported, “Only a flag which fluttered idly at half-mast gave indication that the man who left the home he loved to accept the greatest honor a country may give him was dead.”

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