Election season is always a strange time, but one tradition seems to have people scratching their heads more than the rest. Politicians have been kissing babies for hundreds of years. But why? Why do politicians kiss babies?
Andrew Jackson Starts the Tradition…Maybe?
Kissing babies is a tradition that has puzzled citizens for a while now. This odd election practice dates back to the 19th century, with many commonly crediting Andrew Jackson in 1833 as the originator of the act.
As the story goes, Jackson was on the campaign trail during his reelection bid when he was approached by a mother and her baby. He took the baby into his arms, declaring that the child would “make a fine man someday.” Jackson then pushed the baby toward Secretary of War, General John Eaton, and told him to give him a kiss. Eaton pretended to do so, and the crowd erupted in laughter.
This version of the story has been retold and reprinted many times, though there are a few plot holes, with the most glaring being the fact that General Eaton had resigned as Secretary of War two years before the alleged baby kiss took place.
Either way, the tradition would continue to grow in popularity among Presidents after Jackson. By the second half of the 1800s, there were articles written about it in parenting magazines like Babyhood, describing it as a way to “gain the favor of mothers.” Keep in mind that when that article was published, those mothers didn’t have the right to vote yet.
Why Do Politicians Kiss Babies Today?
Today, many politicians continue to hold, pose with, and smooch babies while campaigning before an election. From Reagan to Obama, photos of presidential hopefuls kissing babies have made the rounds during election years.
The most obvious reason for politicians to embrace the tradition of kissing babies is that it shows a lovable, soft side that might not be apparent during election interviews and debates. Campaigners generally believe that this is a smart way to gain favor among constituents, especially parents. If pulling on heartstrings leads to some extra votes, it’s well worth it for many politicians.
Holding an adorable, chubby baby also makes for a prime photo opportunity. The photos often make the news, giving viewers and readers a break from the otherwise serious election news cycles. Parents, for the most part, seem to be on board with the idea. Mothers and fathers hand over their children for the sake of a great story to tell later. Plus they get a cool photo reminder of the moment.
The Case Against Kissing Babies
For as long as politicians have been scooping up babies and giving them a peck on the cheek, there have been candidates doubting the tradition, or downright refusing to take part.
When Benjamin Harrison opted not to give a baby a kiss in 1889, his decision received mixed responses. Elizabeth Cady Stanton supported him, calling the tradition obnoxious, and making the point that no person, including babies, should be forced to be kissed.
In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro stated her case that kissing babies would spread germs and illness. The candidate for vice president, as a mother herself, wasn’t convinced that handing babies to strangers was a great idea either. However, she did inevitably kiss some babies while campaigning.
Richard Nixon was another firm believer in bucking the tradition. In 1968, he stated that he wouldn’t be participating in any stunts, including kissing babies, saying that doing so would make him “look like a jerk.”
There’s no definite answer about whether kissing a baby makes any difference in an election. But as long as there’s hope for more votes, the tradition will likely continue.
Are you feeling Presidential? Click here to start playing President-themed trivia quizzes on Sporcle!
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.