“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.