Is Walking Actually an Effective Political Statement?

When a North Carolina mayor walked 273 miles to Washington, D.C., this summer, he was just the latest in a long line of politicians to take an attention-seeking stroll.
by | October 2014
Belhaven, N.C., Mayor Adam O'Neal on his two-week, 273-mile trek to Washington, D.C., to protest the closure of his town's hospital.
Belhaven, N.C., Mayor Adam O'Neal on his two-week, 273-mile trek to Washington, D.C., to protest the closure of his town's hospital. Pete Marovich/McClatchy

When Belhaven, N.C., Mayor Adam O’Neal walked 273 miles to Washington, D.C., in July to bring attention to the plight of rural hospitals, he was only the latest in a long history of ambulatory pols to pound the pavement. From Missouri Gov. “Walkin’ Joe” Teasdale to Illinois’ aptly named Dan Walker, public perambulation has become a permanent political ploy. Even President Obama this spring donned his walking shoes for an afternoon constitutional (with video cameras in tow) to the nearby Department of the Interior for a meeting.

But just how effective are these attention-seeking strolls? It depends on the context. O’Neal, who was objecting to his local hospital’s closure after North Carolina did not expand Medicaid, didn’t get his hospital reopened the moment he arrived on foot in D.C. But he did elicit national news coverage on the plight of rural areas’ access to health care. “That’s the big goal,” says Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, a political science professor at the University of North Texas. “It’s a catchy way for people to get their message out.”

Oftentimes, that message is simply, “I’m one of you.” But the tactic can backfire. During former President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration in 1977, he got out of his limo and insisted on walking with his procession down Pennsylvania Avenue. That man-of-the-people image is what he campaigned on, but it became hard to maintain in office, during events likes the energy crisis and the Iran hostage crisis. “Symbolically, he raised his expectations,” Eshbaugh-Soha says. “Then he found out in office he couldn’t be as transparent as he wanted.”

On the other hand -- er, foot -- former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander credits his 1,000-mile walk across the state in 1978 with winning him the gubernatorial election that year. It was Alexander’s second bid for the governor’s mansion; in the 1974 campaign, his year-and-a-half in the Nixon White House haunted him and he was cast as a Washington insider. Four years later, he donned a red-and-black plaid shirt and hiking boots and took six months to walk across the state, shaking hands and bunking with local supporters all along the way.

Before Alexander, there was Missouri’s Teasdale, who earned his “Walkin’ Joe” nickname schlepping door to door during the 1972 gubernatorial campaign. He lost that election, but the moniker stuck and Teasdale was elected four years later. In Illinois, former Gov. Dan Walker has said that voters remember him far more for his 1,200-mile campaigning trek across the southern half of the state in 1971 than for anything he ever did in office.

Of course the public walk is a political gimmick, and it runs the risk of coming off as an overly staged stunt. When done right, though, political promenading can tap into voters’ nostalgia, says Alabama-based political consultant David Mowery. “It’s, ‘My daddy walked to school,’ or ‘My granddaddy was a farmer,’” he says. “It’s that man of the people thing. That’s sort of how we all like to see ourselves.”

What really matters is what happens once the walk is over, says Brad Warthen, a former reporter who covered Alexander’s 1978 campaign. “People look back on Alexander and say he delivered on what he said he was going to be. He governed as he said he would,” Warthen says. “So even in retrospect, it doesn’t look phony."