The Republican Campaign
During July, Taft rested in the
resort town of Hot Springs, Virginia, before delivering his
acceptance speech, edited by President Roosevelt, on the 28th.
The Republican platform had not mentioned the issue of campaign
contributions, but Taft announced that he would follow New York
State law and publish a list of all donors after the election.
He did not mention the money question except to label
guaranteeing bank deposits as “wrong in principle” because it
would foster risky and irresponsible banking practices. He
rejected Bryan’s contention that “any monopoly is indefensible,”
but agreed with the need to prosecute bad trusts. Taft
argued that the Panic of 1907 was not Roosevelt’s fault, but
warned that another economic panic would ensue if Bryan were
elected. The Republican nominee pledged to call Congress
into special session to revise the tariff. He called for a
larger military, and cautioned that it would be fifty years
before the Philippines would be ready for independence.
Taft resumed his public silence
in August, while Roosevelt led the vocal charge against Bryan and the Democrats.
The president also sent a steady flow of letters admonishing Taft to be
aggressive. “Do not answer
Bryan, attack him! Don’t let him make the issues… Hit them hard,
old man!” A popular joke of the campaign was that “T.A.F.T” was an acronym
for “Take Advice From Theodore.” The candidate and party chairman Frank
Hitchcock had planned for a traditional “front porch” campaign, but criticism of
Taft’s inaccessibility combined in September with a slight decrease in the
Republican Party's winning percentages in Vermont and Maine state elections
prodded the reluctant GOP candidate to hit the hustings. It was the first
time in American history that both major party presidential nominees engaged in
campaign speaking tours.
Taft did not possess Bryan’s
oratorical skills and tended to deliver long speeches without memorable lines.
Nevertheless, the Republican standard-bearer presented a formidable physical
presence on the podium, communicated competently without serious gaffes, and
improved his delivery over the campaign. From September 23-October 8, he
traveled from Indiana to Colorado, returning convinced that the election was
his. Sensitive to charges of being anti-labor, Taft reiterated his belief
that workers should be able to organize and even strike if the employer’s
property was not harmed. He declared, “I have done more for union labor
than Mr. Gompers,” and warned that Socialist presidential nominee Eugene Debs
would “uproot existing institutions, destroy the right to private property, and
institute a new regime.” Taft spent the last two weeks of the campaign in
the Midwest and New York, contrasting the good economy under Republican rule
with depression under the Democrats. In all, he traveled 18,000 miles and
delivered 400 speeches.
The Democratic Campaign
Unlike free silver in
1896 and imperialism in 1900, Bryan did not designate one issue as “paramount”
in 1908. In his first post-nomination speech, he emphasized the labor
question, promising to establish a Department of Labor and exempting labor
unions from antitrust prosecution. In September, AFL president Samuel
Gompers campaigned for him. Bryan made a major issue of campaign
contributions, refusing to accept corporate money and (on October 15) publishing
the names of those contributing $100 or more to his election effort. To
highlight that he was the candidate of “the People” (a title Taft also claimed),
Bryan solicited dollar donations from ordinary citizens. The tactic
failed. By early October, only 50,000 people had contributed less than
$250,000 dollars ($4.84 million in 2002 dollars), a disappointing figure.
His challenge to Republicans to publish a list of donors went unheeded during
the campaign. Although debate over alcohol prohibition was important in
many states, both nominees avoided the subject.
As Taft’s acceptance speech
responded to the Democratic platform, so Bryan’s acceptance speech on August 12
answered the Republican nominee. He repeated the Democratic platform’s
assertion that the main question of the campaign was “Shall the People Rule?”
Bryan charged that money from corporations led Republicans to enact legislation
favoring big business and blocking reform. He also singled out the
election of U.S. senators by state legislatures as an impediment to reform, and
said he would call Congress into special session to propose a constitutional
amendment for the direct election of senators. (Taft neutralized the issue
by declaring it “nonpartisan.”) The third major obstacle to popular rule
and reform was identified as the extraordinary power of the Republican Speaker
of the House, Joe Cannon.
As he had in 1896 and 1900,
Bryan ran an energetic campaign, speaking throughout the North and West, while
vice-presidential nominee Kern concentrated on the South. Bryan drew large
crowds and delivered numerous speeches each day (including a record-breaking
30). Now middle-aged, he would often collapse in bed exhausted after a
speech and sleep for a while. He expected to lose New England and the West
Coast, and to hold the South and Rocky Mountain States. Of 60 days on the
campaign trail, half were spent in the Midwest, 10 in New York, 6 in other
Eastern states, and the remaining 14 days in the Plain States and Colorado.
Late in October, Bryan charged
Republicans with trying to buy the election and coercing the labor vote, but the
claims did not seem to resonate with voters. In the pivotal swing state of
New York, he was backed by former senator David B. Hill and Tammany Hall, but
refused the request of leading Democrats that he promise to appoint pro-business
Supreme Court nominees. Bryan pummeled his opponent on the issues of labor
and campaign contributions, and used Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller’s
endorsements of Taft against the Republican nominee. Nevertheless, Bryan
lost New York that November, 53%-41% (3% less than his 44% in 1900).