Young adults are a large voting demographic and their support can make the difference between victory and defeat in an election. That means college campuses are prime locations for campaign rallies, and Purdue is no exception. Here are some highlights of Purdue’s encounters with presidential candidates during the most exciting times of their campaigns.
Until 1971, the voting age in the United States was 21, not 18, limiting the possibility of participation on college campuses. The Purdue student newspaper reported in October of 1900 that “about seventy-five per cent of the Senior class will get a vote this fall, and about two-thirds of the number will vote for McKinley and Roosevelt” (Exponent, Oct 4, 1900, p. 13). That number was limited not only by the age restriction but also by the fact that women were still twenty years away from gaining the right to vote.
The week after the report of the Republican McKinley-Roosevelt ticket’s popularity, the Exponent reported that “the Seniors were excused until three o’clock Wednesday afternoon, to hear Roosevelt, most of the class took the opportunity to see and hear the ‘Rough rider’ of New York” (Exponent, Oct 18, 1900, p. 14). Though Roosevelt did not come to West Lafayette, students would have easily traveled to Fort Wayne (on October 10) or Indianapolis (on October 11) to hear him speak.
Democrat John F. Kennedy made at least two visits to Purdue in as many years. On April 13, 1959, Senator Kennedy visited campus to attend a special student convocation at Elliott Hall of Music, where he “spoke well, handled the question period with finesse, and the Hall was filled, thus making a fine performance in every way” (Purdue Board of Trustees Minutes, May 1, 1959). Kennedy was also rumored to have attended a Purdue-Notre Dame game in West Lafayette on October 3, 1959 (Lafayette Journal and Courier, Oct 3, 1959).
The following year, after his presidential campaign had commenced in earnest, Kennedy won the Purdue students’ mock election as the “Purduvian Party” candidate. One week later, Kennedy adjusted his campaign schedule to visit West Lafayette and accept the nomination in person, saying he hoped that “as Purdue goes, so goes the nation” (Newsreel 1959-1960). The nation did go with Purdue and put Kennedy into the White House, where the Purdue Drill Team visited him in 1961 while visiting the area for the Cherry Blossom Festival (Purdue Alumnus, Summer 1961, p. 1).
Family members of the presidential candidates are often involved in their campaigns. In 1976, Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter’s son, Jack, visited Purdue to campaign on behalf of his father.
Later that year, incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford’s daughter, Susan, gave a brief speech at the Purdue airport as part of a quick campaign stop on October 29 (Lafayette Journal and Courier, Oct 30, 1976). Ford’s Vice Presidential candidate Bob Dole’s daughter, Robin, also visited Purdue that week (Lafayette Journal and Courier, Oct 29, 1976).
President Ford and his running mate Dole lost that election. Sixteen years later, in 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle returned to his home state to campaign for George H.W. Bush’s reelection. The results of the election were foreshadowed when, according to the Purdue student yearbook, “the student body showed discontent” during Quayle’s speech on the steps of Hovde Hall (Debris 1993, p. 38).
Candidates from outside the Republican and Democratic Parties have also visited Purdue. In 1972, Dr. Benjamin Spock, the People’s Party nominee, visited campus. As the student yearbook noted, “Dr. Benjamin Spock made the sole presidential candidate appearance at Purdue. From the two major parties, we could not even attract a campaign manager” (Debris 1973, p. 387).
In 1996, Ross Perot of the Reform Party gave a televised speech in the Armory weeks before earning more than 8 million votes in the general election (Debris 1997, p. 324; Newsreel 1996). Purdue’s most recent campaign visit happened on September 13, 2016, when Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson visited campus (Exponent, Sept 9, 2016).
Other notable political figures have visited Purdue before, during, and after their times in office, but campaign season always inspires some of the most interesting visits. Do you remember any other campaign visits to Purdue? If you have memories or memorabilia such as photographs or historical documents related to those events, we would love to hear from you!
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series highlighting political visits to Purdue. Part II will take a look at visits from presidents during and after their time in office, most notably Ronald Reagan’s 1987 visit.