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Two stories from the 1860s prove that voters decide elections — not the media

The official symbol of the Democratic Party is the rooster. This is from an 1868 advertisement in the San Luis Obispo Pioneer.
The official symbol of the Democratic Party is the rooster. This is from an 1868 advertisement in the San Luis Obispo Pioneer.

A popular election-year trope is that the media controls the election.

However, voters I meet want to make up their own minds.

I have never seen anyone say on Facebook, “Wow, that meme is so convincing. I’m changing my vote.”

Or, “Gosh, that robocall was really what I needed.”

I’d like to think decision-making is improved with accurate information.

But voters are complicated creatures, and the daily news cycle is only one of many influences on how a ballot is cast.

The economy, candidates’ charisma, advertising, political trends and the national mood all loom large in the process.


Here are two examples from the first two years of newspapers in San Luis Obispo County.

The San Luis Obispo Pioneer was founded in January 1868 by Rome G. Vickers. For seven months, it was a bland, apolitical newspaper.

Vickers wrote in the opening issue on Jan. 4, 1868: “Party lines being so closely drawn in our county, (and neither party able, unaided, to give that support to a newspaper requisite to its existence) it would be suicidal in us to drive away, by an imprudent course, the aid and support that we must solicit from the WHOLE PEOPLE.”

The county only had about 4,000 residents at the time, not all readers, and many who only read Spanish.

Eligible voters would have been a fraction of the census, because only men voted at that time.

The state was only 18 years old, and, at the time, the county featured bigger celebrations for Mexico’s Independence Day than the Fourth of July.

By the 29th weekly edition, Vickers could no longer contain his political fire.

The presidential election was perhaps the most harshly divided since the nation had broken out in Civil War eight years earlier after the election of Abraham Lincoln.

Vickers threw The Pioneer all in on behalf of Democrat Horatio Seymour.

The whole front page and Page 4 was a reprint of Seymour’s acceptance speech.

Seymour’s speech stoked fear of African-Americans.

“It is a very notorious fact that nearly one half of the people of the excluded States are negroes; that they are in form, color and character unlike the whites, and that they are, in their present condition, an ignorant and degraded race.”

The Democrats wanted to return to the pre-Civil War status quo, refusing rights and political power for the former slaves.

Republicans were the party of Lincoln and as the war polarized the nation, the more radical members of the party gained power.

The general who had won the war, Ulysses Grant, was their candidate.

One tagline of the election was “Vote as you shot.”

The Pioneer ran headlines like “RADICAL DESPERATION — RULE OR RUIN.”

The hot issue was ratification of the 14th Amendment.

The 14th granted citizenship to everyone, including former slaves born in the United States, and it required each state to provide due process and equal protection to all citizens.

The Pioneer wrote: “The Radical majority in Congress have attempted to destroy the freedom of the whole country by first enslaving a part. By poisoning the public mind with false doctrines in regard to the equality of the races.”

The only newspaper in the county also used the N-word casually and frequently.

The election was close in the state. California provided Grant’s smallest victory margin of any state, less than half a percentage point, 0.48 percent.

So if the media controls the election, with the only media source in San Luis Obispo County feverishly boosting him, Seymour should have fared well. But he didn’t.

U.S. Grant won San Luis Obispo County 373-345, by a comparatively large 7 percent victory, 6 points better than the overall state.

The voters in San Luis Obispo County ignored the news media and made up their own minds.

The following off-year election, The Pioneer now had competition. The Tribune was founded as a Republican newspaper, the alternative upstart newspaper of 1869.

That year’s hot national controversy was ratification of the 15th Amendment, which specifically granted voting rights to African-American men without regard to “race, color or previous condition of servitude.”

The Tribune endorsed the 15th in Vol. 1 No. 1, but The Pioneer scorned it.

“We had imagined that some of our Republican friends in this county were hardly prepared as yet to swallow the black pill of universal or manhood suffrage.”

Aside from political positions, The Tribune was the better newspaper. It was better written, had better sourced information and was more evenhanded with news coverage.

It wrote in the opening issue Aug. 7, 1869:

“The Tribune will deny to neither party credit where credit is due. It will not be virulent in its advocacy of party measures. It will not deny the truth.”

The Pioneer was nasty, mean-spirited and small-minded.

The Pioneer lost the presidential endorsement sweepstakes the year before.

Any guess which paper’s candidates would win in 1869?

The Pioneer slate made almost a clean sweep of the election.

The majority of voters ignored the endorsements of the better newspaper in town and voted their own minds.

Often, midterm elections can be difficult for the party in power.

Nevada would be the first state to ratify the 15th Amendment on March 1, 1869, but as a result of the November election, California rejected it Jan. 28, 1870.

Fear of Chinese immigration soured the California state Senate, where the measure failed to pass on a vote of 51-8, followed by applause.

Enough other states ratified the 15th, and it became national law in 1870.

Shamefully, California waited 92 years — until April 3, 1962 — to take the symbolic step of ratification.

Only the Civil War border states of Maryland, Kentucky and Tennessee took longer.

The never-modest San Luis Obispo Pioneer crowed after the election.

“DIED — On the 20th instant, at sunset, after a painful and lingering illness, the REPUBLICAN PARTY of San Luis Obispo County. The deceased had evidently been going down the hill for the last two years.”

The death notice was premature, but ironically the Pioneer newspaper died a few weeks later.

Though it had won politically, Vickers and his Pioneer failed to make enough friends to have a viable newspaper. He sold his press, played banjo in one last minstrel show and packed up his wife and daughter and left town.

The Tribune survived the election losses and in the ensuing 147 years, some of the candidates it endorsed won and others lost.

Voters decide elections. Get out Tuesday and end the political advertising and robocalls.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp

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