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A stump speech is the standard political speech of a politician, and the term dates back to politics in American in the 1800s. During that time, politicians would travel from area to area in what is now called “stumping.” Some politicians would actually use a tree stump or a sawed off bit of log to stand on, so they could be better viewed by those who came to watch their speeches.
Usually, a politician delivered virtually the same speech in different areas, and this speech usually consisted of the things he/she planned to do in political office, and comments about his thoughts on America. Today all things that a politician repeats over and over again may be considered part of his/her stump speech. Inspirational words or phrases that get used repeatedly are also part of the candidate’s stump.
When the term originated, getting word out about a politician’s platforms usually had to be done by travel, and through newspaper reporting. The repetition of stump speeches did not bother most people, since they were unlikely to hear speeches more than once or twice at most. Today, this has changed significantly with 24-hour news cycles and with the proliferation of available news on the Internet. If you happen to watch several speeches from the same candidate, a few parts may be new each time, but most will be the standard stump speech that you’ve probably heard or viewed before. Parts of a stump speech even make it into things like debates.
This repetition can confuse people or make them think the candidate has nothing new to say. Yet, that’s not always the case, and often what news reports will cover is anytime a candidate deviates from his/her stump speech. If the candidate announces new policy or changes key elements of their “classic” speech, then those following the news are sure to know about it. It can be a fairly tricky rhetorical process when you try to incorporate new material with an old stump speech, particularly if the candidate shifts opinions dramatically.
It’s also important to consider that no stump speech is likely to give hugely detailed information about a candidate’s plans. There may be a few details, but politicians are mainly drawing a general picture about their political orientation and ideas for their office. They’re also using the speech as an opportunity to excite people about their candidacy.
One use of the term stump speech is quite different. In minstrel shows especially blackface performers would mock the standard political speech, particularly after the Civil War. These stump speeches were long comic oratories that made fun of real issues and were intended to amuse. However, many would find examples of minstrel stump speeches to be particularly abhorrent given their strong sexist and racist overtones.
You may also hear someone refer to a politician as a good "stump speaker." In this context, it means the person knows how to rally the troops and motivate people with his or her oratorical qualities.
Two excellent stump speakers in recent American politics are Ross Perot and Bill Clinton. Regardless of how one feels about their politics, their speaking abilities were never in question. Both could make their hearers believe anything they said. They have the ability to hold an audience's attention and that's a crucial quality for a good stump speaker.
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