How Did the Donkey & Elephant Become Political Mascots?

iStock/mattjeacock
iStock/mattjeacock

It all started with an insult. During Andrew Jackson's 1828 presidential campaign, his political opponents labeled him a "jackass." Stubborn as he was, Jackson co-opted the insult and began putting a donkey on his election posters. For the rest of his career and even into his retirement, newspapers and cartoonists continued to represent Jackson either as a stubborn ass or struggling to control one.

Almost 40 years later, the donkey was used to represent not just Jackson, but a larger group of Democrats. In 1870, Thomas Nast, the German-born political cartoonist who gave us the versions of Santa Claus and Uncle Sam we know today, drew a cartoon for Harper's Weekly titled "A Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion." The donkey was a stand-in for "Copperhead Democrats" (the Northern Democrats that opposed the Civil War), and the lion represented Edwin M. Stanton, Abraham Lincoln's recently deceased Secretary of War. Nast thought of the Copperheads as anti-Union and believed the Democratic press's treatment of Stanton was disrespectful.

In 1874, the New York Herald loudly opposed the possibility of Ulysses S. Grant running for a third presidential term and cried Caesarism. Nast, a life-long Republican who'd become frustrated with his party, thought Republicans might fall for the scare tactic. He drew another cartoon for Harper's, again using a donkey to represent Democrats and adding an animal to symbolize Republicans.

The cartoon, titled "The Third Term Panic," showed a donkey (representing the Herald and the Democratic press) wearing a lion's skin (labeled "Caesarism") in order to frighten a group of animals. Among those animals are an elephant (labeled "Republican Vote" and awkwardly fleeing towards a pit labeled "Inflation" and "Chaos") and a fox (labeled "Democrats" and backing away from the pit that the elephant is about to fall into).

The Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives that November, and Nast bemoaned the defeat in another cartoon. It showed an elephant caught in a trap set by a donkey, and the lumbering confused behemoth of the Republican Party undone by the Herald's scare tactics.

Nast continued to use the elephant and the donkey in his cartoons, eventually having them represent the whole of his party and the opposition. In March of 1877, after Republican Rutherford B. Hayes' controversial victory, a Nast cartoon showed an injured elephant ("Republican Party") kneeling at a tombstone labeled "Democratic Party." An 1879 cartoon (pictured) showed a politician grabbing a donkey labeled "Democratic Party" by the tail to keep it from falling into a pit of "financial chaos." The Republican elephant ("the sluggish animal") is lying on and blocking the road to an election victory.

By 1880, other cartoonists had picked up the symbols and spread them across the country. Over a century later, their continued use in cartoons, party literature, campaign buttons and all sorts of political merchandise and propaganda has cemented the association between the parties and their animals. The Republicans have even adopted the elephant as their official symbol (the Democrats have yet to do the same for the poor donkey).

What Happens to Leftover Campaign Funds When a Candidate Drops Out?

After nearly one year of campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, Kamala Harris has officially bowed out of the 2020 election. She's not the only would-be president to call it quits so far. So what happens to all the leftover campaign funds when a candidate drops out?

One thing's for sure: Upset candidates can't console themselves by putting the dough toward a new yacht and sailing off to recuperate. The Federal Election Commission has strict rules about what federal candidates can and can't do with leftover campaign money, and the biggest directive is that they can't pocket it for personal use.

Here's what a campaign committee is allowed to do with any lingering cash: it can donate the funds to charities or political parties; it can contribute $2000 per election to other candidates; and it can save the money in case the candidate chooses to run again. However, those regulations don't apply to the relatively new super PACs (Political Action Committees); this is only the third election where they have played a role, and there are currently no rules to stipulate what happens to that money beyond that it cannot go to fund another federal candidate. Much of that money tends to be returned to its original donors, used to wrap up the failed campaign, or donated to back a state-level candidate. The goal, however, is always to spend all of that money.

Running a campaign is an expensive proposition—Barack Obama spent nearly $750 million on his 2008 White House bid, and in 2012 he spent $985 million on reelection while challenger Mitt Romney spent $992 million—and insufficient cash is often a reason campaigns go belly up.

As for winning (or sometimes losing) politicians, they'll often put their leftover funds toward their next race. If they choose not to run, they have to abide by the same FEC rules. Wonder why this law is in effect? Until 1993, U.S. Representatives who took office before January 8, 1980, were allowed to keep any leftover campaign cash when they retired, but a study showed that a third of Congress kept and spent millions in campaign donations on personal items like clothing, jewelry, artwork, personal travel, and dry cleaning. Embarrassed, Congress passed a law negating this custom for the House; the Senate already had provisions in place so this wouldn't happen.

In reality though, officials can usually find a way to make that cash still work for them (and state laws differ from federal ones). After Chris Christie won reelection as New Jersey's governor in 2014, his campaign was granted permission to use some of its remaining war chest to cover the legal fees Christie incurred during the Bridgegate scandal. And this was well before he dropped $26.7 million on his failed 2016 presidential bid.

An earlier version of this article originally ran in 2012.

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