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Republican presidential candidate Robert Taft, a U.S. Senator from Ohio, appears dismayed as he holds a rooster during his 1952 primary campaign.
Republican presidential candidate Robert Taft, a U.S. Senator from Ohio, appears dismayed as he holds a rooster during his 1952 primary campaign.Alfred Eisenstaedt—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Robert Taft, a U.S. Senator from Ohio, appears dismayed as he holds a rooster during his 1952 primary campaign.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt talks to a young mother while sitting in his car during a trip to the West in 1936.
Vice Presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace throws a boomerang in a field in January 1940.
Republican candidate for Congress Raymond Leslie Buell gives a campaign speech on a platform surrounded by townspeople in a small Massachusetts park in August 1942.
Hamilton Fish, a Republican Congressman from New York who served 25 years in the House, stands before his likeness in the midst of a campaign.
Gomer Smith talks to small gathering on street from bed of feed truck, Wagoner, Oklahoma in June 1942.
A car caravan takes GOP presidential candidate Thomas Dewey into the countryside in September 1948.
Thomas E. Dewey accepts Republican nomination for President at the Republican Natlonal Convention in June 1948.
Claude D. Pepper naps with his wife in the back seat of a chartered plane as they fly home after his last campaign speech in May 1950.
A photo from above of General Dwight D. Eisenhower standing at a lectern delivering a speech during a campaigning whistle stop tour of the mid-west in September 1952. There are hundreds of people in the crowd.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower accepts a pumpkin in 1952.
LIFE photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt adjusts Richard Nixon's tie prior to photo shoot during the 1960 presidential campaign.
John F. Kennedy gives a speech while standing on a kitchen chair in Logan County, West Virginia
Senator Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) talks with staff and reporters while on a plane in April 1960, before accepting John Kennedy's offer to be his running mate.
Hubert Humphrey shakes hands with a voter while campaigning prior to the West Virginia primary in April 1960.
GOP Presidential candidate Barry Goldwate on campaign trail in January 1964.
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy shakes hands with admirers in October 1966.
George McGovern campaigns, 1972.
Republican presidential candidate Robert Taft, a U.S. Senator from Ohio, appears dismayed as he holds a rooster during h
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Alfred Eisenstaedt—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
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LIFE on the Stump: Classic Photos From the Campaign Trail

Oct 27, 2012

"A national political campaign," H.L. Mencken once observed, "is better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in."

Baptisms and hangings aside, Mencken's characterization of a campaign as a circus-like affair—alternately thrilling, entertaining, silly and (occasionally) a matter of life and death—still strikes a chord. Just like at the circus, during any hard-fought, high-profile campaign we watch, shake our heads and hold our breath, stunned by the spectacle and wondering how on earth the performers can keep going day after day, night after night.

But it's also worth pointing out that, in some very elemental ways, pretty much all American political campaigns are very much alike, and (like circuses) they have looked and felt the same for as long as Democrats and Republicans have been vying for the House, the Senate, governors' mansions and, of course, the Oval Office.

Here, as the 2014 midterm elections heat up, LIFE.com presents photos of American politicians on the campaign trail: famous leaders and largely forgotten pols shaking hands, kissing babies, eating everything put in front of them, traveling in planes, trains and automobiles in search of one more vote. It's not pretty—but then, while it might be highly entertaining, no one ever said that politics was an especially attractive endeavor.

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