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Can You Run a Presidential Campaign from Prison?

Running a presidential campaign from prison is a complex challenge, entwined with legal, ethical, and logistical hurdles. Despite these obstacles, history has seen such bids, where candidates harness their incarceration as a symbol of political struggle. But how does this impact their campaign's legitimacy and voter support? Join us as we examine the intricacies of this unconventional campaign battleground.

As presidential underdogs go, Eugene V. Debs might have been the most determined. Not only was Debs a socialist who had already lost four times before his 1920 attempt, but he was also running his long shot campaign from behind bars. As Election Day neared, Debs was incarcerated at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary for speaking out against the World War I draft and thus violating the Espionage Act of 1917.

As such, Debs wasn't allowed a last-minute stump speech, but he did get to issue this statement: "I thank the capitalist masters for putting me here," he said. "They know where I belong under their criminal and corrupting system. It is the only compliment they could pay me."

Eugene V. Debs lost the 1920 presidential election while in prison for an antiwar speech that was deemed seditious.
Eugene V. Debs lost the 1920 presidential election while in prison for an antiwar speech that was deemed seditious.

Supporters outside the prison handed out "Prisoner 9653" campaign buttons and pictures of Debs in his jail outfit. Debs and the Socialist Party of America managed to garner nearly 1 million votes (around 3.4% of the popular vote) in the election won by Republican candidate Warren G. Harding. Harding later commuted the increasingly-frail Debs' 10-year sentence to time served, and Debs was released on Christmas Day 1921.

Election oddities:

  • Only one U.S. president has been elected unanimously by the Electoral College: George Washington.

  • A sole New Hampshire elector voted against James Monroe in 1820, so Monroe earned every electoral nod but one.

  • For the 1860 election, Broughton's Monthly published the presidential candidates and their horoscopes, offering odds on their winning based on what the stars said.

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    • Eugene V. Debs lost the 1920 presidential election while in prison for an antiwar speech that was deemed seditious.
      By: Eden, Janine and Jim
      Eugene V. Debs lost the 1920 presidential election while in prison for an antiwar speech that was deemed seditious.