The 1864 Presidential Election, or How Lincoln Put Himself Out There

Lincoln Button

Lincoln Button

In 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln ran for reelection against former Union general George McClellan. It was the first presidential election in U.S. history to take place during a military crisis at home and the first in which soldiers from most states were allowed to vote in the field (White, 2014). The election itself was an important accomplishment, as Lincoln noted two days afterward: “We can not have free government without elections, and if the rebellion could force us to forgo, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us” (White, 2014 para 3).

Lincoln was the first U.S. presidential candidate whose photographic image appeared on a campaign button (during the 1861 election; King, 2016). The 1864 button pictured above, which has been passed down through my family, is a tintype photo with a metal casing. The reverse side features Lincoln’s running mate, Tennessee governor Andrew Johnson. Due to his keen interest in technology (Donald, 1995), Lincoln probably loved the innovation of adding photos to political advertisements.

Perceived competence is crucial for a candidate’s electoral success, and voters may infer competence from a candidate’s photo, especially if they are less politically informed (Ahler, Citrin, Dougal, & Lenz, 2016; Banducci, Karp, Thrasher, & Rallings, 2008). Contenders who “look” competent are more likely to win elections than those who don’t, even after controlling for their race, gender, and attractiveness (Banducci et al., 2008; Laustsen, 2014). Moreover, this effect remains even after taking into account the amount of effort candidates expend on their appearance and on their campaign (Ahler et al., 2016).

Like Lincoln, George McClellan’s campaign distributed buttons that featured his photo, which was a good move on his part considering that candidates who don’t make their photos available to voters are rated more poorly on several traits, including competence (Banducci et al., 2008). But Lincoln may have had the edge anyway. Individuals who look more mature (versus baby-faced) are rated as more competent, as are more attractive people (Herrick, Mendez, Thomas, & Wilkerson, 2012; Olivola & Todorov, 2010). To many observers, Lincoln wasn’t particularly handsome (Donald, 1995), but with his heavy eyebrows, large nose, angular face, and beard-accented jaw, he certainly exuded maturity. In effect, Lincoln looked presidential.

On November 8, 1864, Lincoln won by a landslide, collecting 212 of 233 electoral votes and 55% of the popular vote. According to historians, one reason for his success was the fall of Atlanta in early September, which reassured Northerners that the Confederacy was collapsing. But did the photos of Lincoln on his cutting-edge campaign buttons also contribute to his reelection?


Ahler, D. J., Citrin, J., Dougal, M. C., & Lenz, G. S. (2016). Face value? Experimental evidence that candidate appearance influences electoral choice. Political Behavior. Advance online publication. doi:10.1007/s11109-016-9348-6

Banducci, S. A., Karp, J. A., Thrasher, M., & Rallings, C. (2008). Ballot photographs as cues in low-information elections. Political Psychology, 29, 903-917. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9221.2008.00672.x

Donald, D. H. (1995). Lincoln. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Herrick, R., Mendez, J., Thomas, S., & Wilkerson, A. (2012). Gender and perceptions of candidate competency. Journal of Women, Politics, and Policy, 33, 126-150. doi:10.1080/1554477X.2012.667748

King, E. (2016, May 17). The long story behind presidential campaign buttons and pins. Time. Retrieved from

Laustsen, L. (2014). Decomposing the relationship between candidates’ facial appearance and electoral success. Political Behavior, 36, 777-791. doi:10.1007/s11109-013-9253-1

Olivola, C. Y., & Todorov, A. (2010). Elected in 100 milliseconds: Appearance-based trait inferences and voting. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 34, 83-110. doi:10.1007/s10919-009-0082-1

White, J. W. (2014, November 7). How Lincoln won the soldier vote. New York Times. Retrieved from