Goodbye, Campaign Bus: Presidential Races Are Taking Flight

 In COVID-19

The coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic has reshaped the 2020 U.S. pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, lim­it­ing the number of ral­lies and in-person appear­ances of the can­di­dates.

When can­di­dates do ven­ture out, a famil­iar form of cam­paign trans­porta­tion, the campaign bus, is likely to remain ground­ed, as tight quar­ters make social dis­tanc­ing nearly impos­si­ble.

Until recent­ly, can­di­dates have relied pri­mar­i­ly on social media to reach voters. But this medium and cam­paign­ing from home – or from your front porch, as Warren Harding did in 1920 at the end of anoth­er pan­dem­ic – cannot suf­fi­cient­ly sub­sti­tute for in-person con­tact with voters.

Aircraft have played a role in U.S. pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns for decades. As an aviation historian atten­tive to the evolution of the general aviation sector, I think the pan­dem­ic has increased their impor­tance in 2020, forc­ing candidates to make more strategic use of aircraft as the quick­est and safest way to cam­paign.

Campaigns Take Flight

The use of air­planes in presidential campaigns has evolved from something so daring – even death-defy­ing – that it made head­lines, to a con­ve­nient, nec­es­sary tool.

Today it’s the safest way for candidates to travel – not simply because of aviation’s safety record but due to the dangers candidates face amid the pandemic.

With the Great Depression hang­ing over the 1932 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt believed the coun­try would respond to bold lead­er­ship. His cam­paign hatched a plan to break with pro­to­col and accept the Democratic presidential nomination in person – and in dra­mat­ic fash­ion.

Working with American Airways, Roosevelt’s sec­re­tary, Guernsey Cross, arranged to charter a Ford Tri-Motor, a stan­dard com­mer­cial air­craft of the early 1930s, to fly the governor from Albany to Chicago. During a year when only 474,000 Americans traveled via commercial aircraft, the flight cap­tured media atten­tion.

The plane took off at about 8:30 a.m. on July 2, 1932, and after stops in Buffalo and Cleveland arrived in Chicago at 4:30 p.m., two hours behind sched­ule due to bad weath­er. Roosevelt used the time to work on his speech. That evening he accepted the nomination in person and promised Americans a “new deal.”

Roosevelt’s flight, how­ev­er, did not imme­di­ate­ly lead to more pres­i­den­tial air travel. Although First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt would use air­craft exten­sive­ly, air travel was con­sid­ered too risky for the pres­i­dent. FDR would not fly as pres­i­dent until 1943, when he used a mil­i­tary air­craft to travel to the Casablanca Conference in Morocco, to attend a crucial strategy meeting with Winston Churchill.

Private Planes Gain Prominence, Come Under Fire

Presidential air travel was well estab­lished when, during the 1960 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, John F. Kennedy became the first candidate to use his own private aircraft – a Convair CV-240 – to campaign.

It’s prob­a­bly an exag­ger­a­tion to argue that the plane – dubbed “Caroline” for his young daugh­ter – pro­vid­ed Kennedy with his margin of vic­to­ry in the hotly con­test­ed race, as claimed by The Smithsonian.

But it did allow Kennedy to travel more than 225,000 miles and campaign more efficiently. And since then, pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates have made exten­sive use of pri­vate air­craft during their cam­paigns. Most cam­paign air­craft are char­tered or owned by the cam­paign.

There was noth­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly con­tro­ver­sial about cam­paign­ing with pri­vate air­craft until the 2008 finan­cial crisis. As the nation plunged into the Great Recession, automobile industry CEOs came under fire for using corporate aircraft to fly to Washington, D.C. for con­gres­sion­al hear­ings focused on the huge bailout pack­ages the indus­try had received from the gov­ern­ment. Intense public back­lash led to a drastic market downtown for corporate jets. That back­lash might explain Sen. Barack Obama’s 2008 Whistle-Stop campaign train tour, where he chose an his­toric mode of pres­i­den­tial trans­porta­tion over the newly con­tro­ver­sial one.

By 2012, how­ev­er, mem­o­ries of the 2008 con­tro­ver­sy had faded and can­di­dates again used private jets for campaign travel. Mitt Romney leased a 1990 MD-83, while his run­ning mate, Paul Ryan, uti­lized a 1970 DC‑9 – 32. Both air­craft, bear­ing the slogan “Believe in America,” debuted at a campaign rally in Lakeland, Florida.

But per­haps the most vis­i­ble use of a pri­vate air­craft in a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign came with Donald Trump’s use of his own Boeing 757 in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial race.

Trump used the plane, embla­zoned with his name, as a backdrop at campaign rallies. The plane, thus, not only allowed him to travel easily and exten­sive­ly, but it also helped him pro­mote his personal Trump brand at every cam­paign stop.

Safety During the Pandemic

Though commercial aviation has witnessed a small recovery since the start of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, pri­vate air­craft have reemerged as the safest way to travel. They permit greater con­trol over pas­sen­gers and make social dis­tanc­ing easier. Both Air Force One and pri­vate air­craft have fea­tured promi­nent­ly in the 2020 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Both can­di­dates are in their seventies and at greater risk from infection. The Secret Service will con­tin­ue to take precautions to keep President Trump safe on Air Force One. And Biden’s cam­paign can more easily enforce health guide­lines on a pri­vate plane, espe­cial­ly pro­to­cols on masks and social dis­tanc­ing. Although the Biden cam­paign has decided against leasing a dedicated campaign plane, when nec­es­sary – such as for his recent trip to Kenosha, Wisconsin – Biden can and undoubt­ed­ly will make use of pri­vate air­craft.

The 2020 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion began amid stay-at-home orders, with President Trump and Joe Biden large­ly con­fined during the first few months. As Trump and Biden seek to get their mes­sages out in the final weeks of the cam­paign, both will use air­craft when nec­es­sary and in what they deter­mine to be the best inter­ests of their respec­tive races for the White House.

The Conversation

Janet Bednarek, Professor of History, University of Dayton

This arti­cle is repub­lished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Image: Reuters.

National Interest source|articles

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