Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1896

The Panic of 1893, one of America's most devastating economic collapses, placed the Democrats on the defensive and restored Governor McKinley's stature in national politics. McKinley dominated the political arena at the opening of the 1896 Republican presidential nominating convention held in St. Louis. His commitment to protectionism as a solution to unemployment and his popularity in the Republican Party—as well as the behind-the-scenes political management of his chief political supporter, affluent businessman Marcus Hanna of Ohio—gave McKinley the nomination on the first ballot. He accumulated 661 votes compared to the 84 votes won by his nearest rival, House Speaker Thomas B. Reed of Maine.

The Republican platform endorsed protective tariffs and the gold standard while leaving open the door to an international agreement on bimetallism. It also supported the acquisition of Hawaii, construction of a canal across Central America, expansion of the Navy, restrictions on the acceptance of illiterate immigrants into the country, equal pay for equal work for women, and a national board of arbitration to settle labor disputes.

The Democrats, meeting in Chicago, rallied behind William Jennings Bryan, a former congressman from Nebraska. A superb orator, Bryan stirred Democrats with his stinging attack on the gold standard and his defense of bimetallism and free silver. He won the nomination on the fifth ballot. The Democrats pegged their hopes for victory on their opposition to (1) the protective tariff, (2) the immigration of foreign "pauper labor," and (3) the use of injunctions to end strikes. They also supported a federal income tax, a stronger Interstate Commerce Commission, statehood for the western states (Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona), and the anti-Spanish revolutionaries in Cuba, who were also supported by the Republicans.

Realizing that the Democrats had stolen their thunder on free silver, the insurgent Populist Party, which sought to organize and support farmers' interests, fused with the Democrats to nominate Bryan for President. Faced with the loss of the Solid South and the Far West, owing to the silver issue, the Republicans raised a staggering $4 million for the campaign. A majority of the contributions came from business, particularly protectionist manufacturers who supported high tariffs and bankers who wanted to maintain sound money policies. Most of these funds went into the printing and distribution of 200 million pamphlets. McKinley, following the tradition of previous candidates who campaigned for President from their homes, delivered 350 carefully crafted speeches from his front porch in Canton to 750,000 visiting delegates. Some 1,400 party speakers stumped the nation, painting Bryan as a radical, a demagogue, and a socialist. Republican speakers de-emphasized their party's stand on bimetallism and instead championed a protective tariff that promised full employment and industrial growth.

Bryan, in response, stumped the nation in a strenuous campaign, covering 18,000 miles in just three months. He spoke to wildly enthusiastic crowds, condemning McKinley as the puppet of big business and political managers. However, midway through his campaign, Bryan's pace faltered. His strategy for dual party support failed. Gold Democrats bolted the party, unhappy with Bryan's stand on bimetallism and free silver. Some urban-based progressives, who worried about Bryan's evangelistic style and moralistic fervor, also deserted the Democrats. Moreover, Bryan failed to build support outside his Populist and agrarian base, especially in the face of McKinley's effective campaigning on economic issues.

Bryan lost to McKinley by a margin of approximately 600,000 votes, the greatest electoral sweep in twenty-five years. McKinley received over a third more electoral college votes than Bryan. The Republican victory reflected a winning coalition of urban residents in the North, prosperous midwestern farmers, industrial workers, ethnic voters (with the exception of the Irish), and reform-minded professionals. It launched a long period of Republican power lasting until 1932, broken only by Woodrow Wilson's victory in 1912, which occurred principally because of a split in the Republican Party.

The Campaign and Election of 1900

After four years in office, McKinley's popularity had risen because of his image as the victorious commander-in-chief of the Spanish-American War (see Foreign Affairs section) and because of the nation's general return to economic prosperity. Hence, he was easily renominated in 1900 as the Republican candidate. The most momentous event at the Philadelphia convention centered on the vice presidential nomination of Governor Theodore Roosevelt of New York. Vice President Garret A. Hobart of New Jersey had died in office, and Roosevelt's candidacy added a popular war hero and reform governor to the ticket. Setting up the stage for a rematch of the 1896 election, the Democrats again nominated Bryan at their convention in Kansas City. Grover Cleveland's former vice president, Adlai E. Stevenson, took the second spot on the Democratic slate.

The rematch played to old and new issues. Bryan refused to back off his call for free silver even though the recent discoveries of gold in Alaska and South Africa had inflated the world's money supply and increased world prices. As a result, the U.S. farming industry saw its profits grow as crops such as corn commanded more money on the market. Farmer dissatisfaction was less than it was in 1896, and gold was the reason behind it. Hence, Bryan's silver plank was a nonissue to the farming community, which was one of his main constituent groups. Responding to these voter sentiments, Democratic Party managers included the silver plank in their platform but placed greater emphasis on expansionism and protectionism as the key issues in the election. The Democrats also opposed McKinley's war against Philippine insurgents and the emergence of an American empire, viewing the latter as contrary to the basic character of the nation. The Republicans countered with a spirited defense of America's interests in foreign markets. They advocated expanding ties with China, a protectorate status for the Philippines, and an antitrust policy that condemned monopolies while approving the "honest cooperation of capital to meet new business conditions" in foreign markets.

Duplicating the campaign tactics of 1896, the Republicans spent several million dollars on 125 million campaign documents, including 21 million postcards and 2 million written inserts that were distributed to over 5,000 newspapers weekly. They also employed 600 speakers and poll watchers. As in 1896, McKinley stayed at home dispensing carefully written speeches. His running mate, Theodore Roosevelt, campaigned across the nation, condemning Bryan as a dangerous threat to America's prosperity and status.

Although not a landslide shift comparable to election swings in the twentieth century, McKinley's victory ended the pattern of close popular margins that had characterized elections since the Civil War. McKinley received 7,218,491 votes (51.7 percent) to Bryan's 6,356,734 votes (45.5 percent)—a gain for the Republicans of 114,000 votes over their total in 1896. McKinley received nearly twice as many electoral votes as Bryan did. In congressional elections that year, Republicans held fifty-five Senate seats to the Democrats' thirty-one, and McKinley's party captured 197 House seats compared to the Democrats' 151. Indeed, the Republican Party had become the majority political party in the nation.