Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1888

In the Mugwump revolt of reform Republicans against the candidacy of Senator James G. Blaine of Maine in 1884, Benjamin Harrison carefully walked the middle ground. Refusing to put his hat in the presidential ring, he eventually supported Blaine with energy and enthusiasm. In February 1887, Harrison lost reelection to the United States Senate in the new Democrat-controlled state legislature. (At this time United States senators were selected by the state legislatures rather than by popular vote. Only after passage of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, which was part of the Progressive Era reforms, did this practice change.) One year later, Harrison announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, declaring himself (in reference to his lack of a power base) a "living and rejuvenated Republican." The words "Rejuvenated Republicanism" became the slogan of his presidential campaign.

At the Republican convention in Chicago in the summer of 1888, front-runner James G. Blaine, unable to secure the nomination for himself, threw his support to Harrison in the hope of uniting the party against the Democratic incumbent, Grover Cleveland. In the hotly contested nomination fight that followed, Harrison became everyone's second choice in a field of seven candidates. When Senator John Sherman of Ohio, the first choice, faltered in the balloting, Harrison's support surged ahead, winning him the nomination on the eighth ballot. The convention picked banker Levi P. Morton of New York as Harrison's running mate. The Democrats, at their national convention in St. Louis, rallied behind incumbent Grover Cleveland of New York and his running mate, Allen G. Thurman, the senator from Ohio.

The campaign of 1888 exhibited little of the hostility that had marked the 1884 race, when candidate Blaine had waged a whirlwind series of public appearances. President Cleveland made only one appearance in 1888. Harrison limited his speeches to front porch receptions in Indianapolis for a stream of carefully selected delegations and press reporters. While the two candidates did not personally campaign, their party organizations, in sharp contrast, did. The tone of the party-sponsored campaign was much more lively. There were posters, political cartoons, speeches, rallies, parades, brass bands, and torchlight demonstrations.

The race centered around the tariff issue, with Harrison speaking forcefully for a strong protective tariff, sound currency, pensions for Civil War veterans, and efficiency in office. A more emotional issue for the electorate was the bloody shirt legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction, which remained as an unhealed scar in the American consciousness. Cleveland's promise to return captured Confederate flags to Southern states as a show of national unity (in contrast with Harrison's Civil War career) sparked into flame the dry kindling of Civil War sectionalism.

The election outcome gave President Cleveland approximately 90,000 popular votes more than Harrison, but Harrison carried the electoral college 233 to 168. Harrison's victory was based upon two swing states: New York and Indiana. Cleveland probably lost New York because of the anti-Tammany Hall reform measures that he carried out as President. Harrison had failed to carry his home city of Indianapolis, and for years after the election, there was political talk suggesting that his supporters had purchased votes in Indiana to win the state. In any case, Republicans increased their membership in the House of Representatives by fourteen seats, and they continued to control the Senate by a narrow margin. With the appointments of Republican justices to the Supreme Court, Harrison's party dominated all branches of the federal government for the first time in many years.

The Campaign and Election of 1892

In 1892, incumbent Harrison lost to Grover Cleveland in a dramatic turnaround of historic importance. For the first time in the nation's history, the two presidential candidates had both been President. Cleveland's victory, moreover, returned a defeated President to the White House for a second term—a historic first that has never been repeated. The Democrats also regained control of both chambers of Congress.

The seeds of Harrison's defeat in 1892 had been planted early in his administration. The Democrats had surged to power in the 1890 off-year elections by capturing the House of Representatives. Two years later, at the 1892 convention, a major revolt of party regulars threatened to deny Harrison his party's nomination. This threat remained effective only until James G. Blaine, who had broken with Harrison while serving as the President's secretary of state, refused to accept a presidential draft. Although Harrison won the nomination on the first ballot, Blaine and William McKinley of Ohio showed significant strength in the nomination voting, thus denying Harrison a united party ballot.

Harrison's difficulties within the party stemmed from his arbitrary treatment of party bosses and even its rank-and-file supporters. His frozen demeanor, refusal to listen to advice, standoffish behavior, and insensitivity to style and convention alienated even members of his own cabinet. He probably would not have stood for reelection but for his anger at the revolt within his party in support of Blaine, with whom he had become embittered.

As in the election of 1888, both candidates conducted unspectacular and modest campaigns. Cleveland refused to engage in an active or personal campaign when he learned of Mrs. Harrison's serious illness—from which she died on October 25, 1892, just two weeks before the election. Harrison limited himself to a few appearances in New York and New Jersey, two crucial swing states. Both candidates tried to ignore the rebellious third party, the Populists, or People's Party. The Populists nominated Civil War General James Weaver of Iowa, a former Greenback Party candidate, three-term member of the House of Representatives, and advocate of the free coinage of silver.

In the final tally, voters handed Cleveland the most decisive victory of any presidential candidate in twenty years. Cleveland beat Harrison by a margin of approximately 375,000 popular votes. The electoral college vote outcome was more dramatic, allowing Cleveland to win by nearly a two to one margin over Harrison. The Populists drew one million voters and twenty-two electoral ballots. Cleveland swept the Solid South and all four swing states: New York, New Jersey, Indiana, and Connecticut. He also carried Illinois and Wisconsin—this was the first time these states had gone Democratic since the Civil War.

Harrison's defeat stemmed from a lack of backing by his own party as well as from his failure to resolve three national issues. First, Harrison's support for the high McKinley Tariff of 1890 enraged millions. In the public's mind, higher prices seemed directly related to government protection of special corporate interests. Second, agrarian discontent in the South and West led thousands of farmers to look to the Populist Party as a political alternative. Third, a series of bloody labor strikes—at the silver mines in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and at Andrew Carnegie's steel mill in Homestead, Pennsylvania—linked Harrison to monopoly industrialists and bankers. For these reasons and others, voters felt that the President was uncaring and did not act appropriately on their behalf.

Equally important in explaining Harrison's 1892 defeat was the public dissatisfaction with the burst of Republican legislation during Harrison's first year in office. Republican Party leaders had considered the party's sweep in 1888 as a mandate for change. The long 303-day first session of the Fifty-first Congress enacted nearly the entire Republican platform. Flush with over $100 million of surplus revenues, Congress pushed through generous pensions for Civil War veterans, expanding the list of eligible recipients to noncombatant soldiers and the children of veterans. Known thereafter as the first "Billion Dollar" Congress, its surge of controversial Republican activism laid the groundwork for the disastrous reverses in public support for Harrison's party in the midterm elections of 1890 as well as his defeat at the hands of Cleveland in 1892.