Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1884

Grover Cleveland carried four advantages into the 1884 presidential campaign. First, his battles with Tammany Hall had won the support of middle-class voters from both parties. Second, his reformism emphasized hard work, merit, and efficiency, reinforcing his appeal to Republicans as well as to Democrats. Third, and most importantly, he seemed poised to carry the state of New York; in 1884, every politician worth his salt understood that the Democrats had to carry the entire South and New York to win. Lastly, the candidate nominated for the Republican ticket, the irascible James G. Blaine of Maine, had almost as many enemies within the Republican Party as supporters. The morally upright Mugwumps, a Republican faction of reform-minded businessmen and professionals, hated Blaine but admired Cleveland because of his willingness to challenge corrupt political organizations and businesses.

When the two candidates squared off in the summer of 1884, Blaine immediately promoted tariff protection as the centerpiece of his campaign. Cleveland preached honesty and efficiency in government. He talked about the need for federal "corrective action," to which Blaine countered with demands for "constructive action." Democrats tried hard to paint Blaine as politically immoral, a blackmailer who, as Speaker of the House, had used his influence to obtain favors from railroads. The press made the most of these images in their political cartoons. Mass demonstrations sprang up on Wall Street ridiculing Blaine as a tool of the moneyed interests. The Democrats challenged Blaine's integrity further in an effective campaign slogan:

"Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine,

The continental liar from the State of Maine."

For his part, Cleveland gave only two campaign speeches in 1884. In both, he characterized the Republican Party as a "vast army of office holders"—corrupt, extravagant, and subservient to the rich. When Republicans charged Cleveland with fathering an illegitimate child by a woman whom he had then sent to an insane asylum, Cleveland immediately admitted the possibility of his paternity. Like hungry animals scenting blood, the Republican press charged Cleveland with debauchery and immorality. These publications argued that a choice between Cleveland and Blaine was a choice between "the brothel and the family, between indecency and decency, between lust and law." A popular Republican cartoon caption read: "Ma, Ma, Where's my Pa?"

Cleveland responded to these attacks by urging his supporters to "Tell the Truth." After instructing telegramming his Buffalo friends by telegram to follow this dictum, he ignored the scandalmongers and left his defense to his closest associates. He privately told them to avoid all cringing and to make it clear that he had, in fact, fallen to temptation, but just that once. A supporter deflected the morality issue with the following argument: "We are told that Mr. Blaine has been delinquent in office but blameless in public life, while Mr. Cleveland has been a model of official integrity but culpable in personal relations. We should therefore elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office for which he is so well qualified to fill, and remand Mr. Blaine to the private station which he is admirably fitted to adorn."

Cleveland admitted to having sexual relations with Maria Halpin in 1874. She later gave birth to an infant boy and named Cleveland as the child's father. He had agreed to name the child Oscar Folsom Cleveland after himself and his law partner, who, as it happened, could also have been the responsible party. When the mother suffered a mental collapse, the child was adopted by a couple living in the western part of the state. Cleveland never again saw the child or the mother.

Cleveland won the 1884 election by the narrowest of margins. He received 4,879,507 votes (48.5 percent) to Blaine's 4,850,293 votes (48.2 percent). If Blaine had won a few more votes in New York—which he lost to Cleveland by only 1,200 votes out of the more than one million cast, he would have taken that state's huge electoral slate and won the presidency. As it was, Cleveland received 219 electoral votes to Blaine's 182.

The Campaign and Election of 1888

Renominated as the Democratic candidate in 1888, Cleveland met the Republican nominee, Benjamin Harrison—former Civil War general and senator from Indiana, and grandson of President William Henry Harrison—with dignity and understatement. The two men ran campaigns that focused on the issues. The Republicans aggressively defended protective tariffs—raising an unprecedented campaign war chest of $3 million from the nation's manufacturers. They also attacked Cleveland's numerous vetoes, especially those that denied pension increases to Civil War veterans, portraying them as arrogant displays of presidential power. To counteract these charges, Cleveland campaigned on his record of civil service reform and tariff reduction, feeling certain that he would again carry the day.

While Harrison lost the popular vote to Cleveland (47.9 percent to 48.6 percent), he easily won the Electoral College (233 to 168). Cleveland lost New York as well as Indiana, but by very narrow margins. His failure to win his own state of New York was related to the callousness that he demonstrated toward workers' rights and his failure to support a high tariff. Republican victory reflected a focused and well-funded campaign that concentrated on the crucial big-vote states. Most importantly, the Republicans won majorities in both the House and Senate. Some historians say that Harrison's victory marked the beginning of a new era, one in which lavish funds were raised and spent freely to insure political victory.

The Campaign and Election of 1892

In 1892, after four years of Republican leadership, the parties once again ran Harrison and Cleveland. This time, it was the Republican Party that stood in disarray and on the defensive. Moreover, a third party had emerged on the scene: the People's Party (or Populist Party), composed of western populists and southern supporters of the Farmers' Alliance. The Populists gave their nomination to James B. Weaver of Iowa, who had run previously as a Greenbacker (a party that favored the printing of paper currency with no gold backing).

Although the Populist surge carried five states and more than 8 percent of the total vote, Cleveland won with 46 percent of the popular vote to Harrison's 43 percent. The electoral tally gave Cleveland 277, Harrison 145, and Weaver 22. The Democrats also regained both houses of Congress.

In assessing the 1892 election, the Republicans' poor showing in the Midwest among ethnic voters, including Germans and Irish, probably reflected the party's identification with temperance. Also, Republican votes had plummeted in the South as African Americans were disfranchised by various Jim Crow laws (poll taxes, literacy tests, and residency requirements). Additionally, the McKinley Tariff of 1890, a Republican piece of legislation, led to higher prices and wage cuts in select industries, infuriating large segments of the public.