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The Republican Campaign
In 1896, presidential nominee William McKinley conducted a traditionally Republican “front porch” campaign.  Approximately 750,000 supporters, often getting free or discounted tickets from railroad companies, traveled to his home in Canton, Ohio, where the candidate answered questions and delivered short speeches.  The Democratic focus compelled McKinley to discuss the money question, which he had adroitly avoided before his nomination.  He pointed out that inflation caused by free silver would result in higher consumer prices for workers and weaken the national credit necessary for business expansion and job creation.  As the campaign progressed, he focused increasingly on protective tariffs as the economic basis for the nation’s past prosperity and future recovery.  While praising trade protectionism, the GOP labeled Democrats erroneously as free traders.  Inverting Bryan’s assumption, McKinley argued that productive business and industry supported a profitable agricultural sector. 

Republicans not only denounced free silver as economically foolish, but warned voters that the Democratic Party endorsed the Populist and Socialist agendas, such as government ownership of communication and transportation businesses.  The GOP criticized what they called the “anarchy plank” of the Democratic platform, which indirectly condemned federal intervention in the Pullman strike of 1894.  Considering John Peter Altgeld the power behind Bryan, they vilified the Illinois governor for objecting to the use of federal troops to quell the strike and for pardoning three men convicted in the Haymarket bombing.  “Altgeldism” became shorthand for social chaos and political radicalism.  McKinley stressed the theme of national unity and rebuked Bryan for encouraging sectionalism and class conflict—rich versus poor, farmers versus businessmen, and labor versus capital.

Unlike the Democrats, Republicans ran a well organized and financed campaign thanks in large part to the talent of Ohio businessman Mark Hanna.  He had worked on the presidential campaigns of Ohioans Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, James A. Garfield in 1880, and John Sherman in 1884 and 1888 (the latter was not nominated either time).  Hanna steered McKinley’s successful gubernatorial campaigns in 1891 and 1893 before retiring from business in 1895 to devote his time to McKinley’s presidential bid.  Hanna was assisted in 1896 by Charles Dawes (later vice president under Calvin Coolidge), who administered the flow of money.  For the presidential contest, Republicans raised $3.5 million ($75 million in 2002 dollars), a large sum criticized by Democratic partisans and press.

Opposition cartoonists caricatured Hanna as a rich, cigar-chomping political boss of questionable ethics.  In fact, he did not use illegal methods, but instead borrowed tactics from the advertising industry to “sell” McKinley with marketing slogans such as “The Advance Agent of Prosperity.”  Hanna dispatched nearly 1500 speakers across the country, spent most of the Republican war chest in the electorally crucial Midwest, and flooded the country with an estimated 250 million pieces of campaign literature (published in various languages) so that at times each American home was receiving pro-McKinley material on a weekly basis.

Initially alarmed by the enthusiastic crowds greeting Bryan on his speaking tour, Hanna urged McKinley to hit the hustings as well.  The GOP nominee rejected the tactic as undignified and ineffective, and by late summer Republicans were increasingly confident of the contest’s final outcome.  McKinley received the endorsement of a large majority of the nation’s newspapers, along with the backing of some gold-standard Democrats.  Even his National Democratic rival, John Palmer, conceded to supporters in Missouri shortly before the election, “I will not consider it any very great fault if you decide next Tuesday to cast your ballot for William McKinley.”

The Election Results
On November 3, 1896, 14 million Americans went to the polls, giving Republican William McKinley a winning total of over 7,100,000 votes (51%) and 276 in the Electoral College against about 6,500,000 popular ballots (46%) and 176 electoral votes for Democrat William Jennings Bryan.  It was the largest margin of victory since President Ulysses S. Grant’s reelection in 1872.  Three minor party candidates—National Democrat John Palmer, Prohibitionist Joshua Levering, and Socialist Laborite Charles Matchett—divided the remaining three percent of the national vote (133,000; 132,000, and 36,000, respectively).

McKinley barely edged Bryan in the total number of states won, 23-22, but GOP states were the more populous, industrialized, and agriculturally established.  The Republican nominee captured New England, the battleground Midwest, and the Border States of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and West Virginia.  Bryan took the traditionally Democratic South and the most of the Trans-Mississippi West, but lost California, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Oregon.  The Republican ticket attracted a majority vote in most major cities and a considerable portion in farm regions outside the South.  The GOP kept control of both houses of Congress, which they had gained in 1894, and thereby emerged as the majority party, a position Republicans would retain until the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.

The clear results of the 1896 presidential contest and the return of prosperity the next year ended free silver as a political issue.  In 1900, the United States became officially monometallist with passage of the Gold Standard Act.  The election effectively spelled the demise of the Populist Party, as the nation focused on issues relevant to an increasingly industrialized society.

Sources consulted:  William A. DeGregario, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents (New York:  Random House, 1993); Rebecca Edwards and Sarah DeFeo, “The Populist Party,” 1896:  The Presidential Campaign:  Cartoons & Commentary, a Vassar College Website, iberia.vassar.edu/1896/populists.html; Gilbert Fite, “Election of 1896,” in History of American Presidential Elections, ed. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., New York:  Chelsea House Publishers, 1985; Lewis L. Gould, The Presidency of William McKinley (Lawrence, KS:  University Press of Kansas, 1980); Hicks, John D., The Populist Revolt (Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press, 1931); and Lee I. Niedringhaus, “The Panic of 1893,” Museum of American Financial History, www.financialhistory.org/fh/1998/61-1.htm. 

 
 
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