Election of 1896: Republican McKinley defeats Democrat Bryan

The Republicans

The Republican nominating convention met in St. Louis in 1896. Marcus Hanna, the prominent Cleveland businessman and political operator, had lined up more than enough votes to assure the selection of William McKinley, the governor of Ohio and driving force behind the earlier McKinley Tariff. Thirty-four of the delegates walked out of the convention, refusing to accept the party's dedication to high protective tariffs and the gold standard. These Silver Republicans would later support the Democratic nominee. McKinley, despite having supported limited coinage of silver earlier in his career, adopted the party line.

Garret Augustus Hobart of New Jersey, another friend of Hanna, was selected as the vice-presidential candidate.

Despite the Silver Republicans' defection, the party's prospects were rosy. The country continued to be mired in the depression that followed the Panic of 1893 and it was expected that the voters would blame Cleveland and the Democrats.

The Democrats

The Democrats convened in Chicago to select their candidate. President Cleveland and his followers, the so-called Gold Democrats, were in the minority. The platform committee was split and ended up preparing two differing party statements, one favoring the free silver issue and the other opposing it.

This temporary indecision set the stage for William Jennings Bryan, the 36-year-old two-term Congressman from Nebraska. His speech on the platform dilemma electrified the convention and led to both his nomination and the triumph of the free silver forces. Clearly one of the most famous political addresses in American history, the "cross of gold speech" cast the advocates of the gold standard as the crucifiers of Christ and the silver supporters as the true Christians.

Bryan's nomination was no surprise. He and his managers had been working for months to line up the necessary delegates and Bryan had labored long and hard over his speech.

Arthur Sewall, a wealthy shipbuilder from Maine, was selected for the vice-presidential slot in a vain effort to court New England votes.

The Populists

The Populist Party reached a critical juncture in 1896. Considerable sentiment existed for "fusion" with the Democrats, stemming from a fear of splitting the silver vote. However, Bryan and the Democrats showed little interest in other issues and some Populists worried, with ample reason, that a merger would dilute their identity and lead to the party's decline.

In the end, the demand for silver was sufficient to bring the Populist nomination to Bryan, but the party asserted its independence by giving the vice-presidential nod to Thomas E. Watson of Georgia.

The Campaign

McKinley conducted a "front porch campaign" in which he remained at home in Canton, Ohio and trainloads of supporters (perhaps as many as 750,000) were brought in to hear him deliver short speeches tailored for his audiences. The lack of energy in such a campaign seems strange to modern observers, but several factors were at work:

  • Tradition held that presidential candidates should not actively seek votes by widespread campaigning, a spectacle thought to be beneath the dignity of the office; McKinley's opponent, more than any other presidential aspirant, broke that tradition.

  • Mrs. McKinley was seriously ill and her husband was deeply devoted to her; he refused to consider long campaign trips that would separate him from his wife.

  • McKinley was clearly an inferior public speaker compared to the polished and dramatic Bryan; Mark Hanna and other advisors thought it unwise to do anything that might accentuate the difference between the two candidates.

Bryan made no apologies for traveling widely and asking his audiences for their votes. His campaign train stopped at towns and hamlets and the candidate delighted his largely rural listeners with his flamboyant oratory.

In the early fall of 1896, many observers believed Bryan was the frontrunner. This assessment was probably based more on the Bryan crowds' fervor than anything else. The excitement created by the Democratic campaign was used to advantage by Hanna, who managed to leverage the fear of a free-silver victory into hefty contributions from Republican businessmen. Somewhere between three and seven million dollars were raised, compared to about $300,000 by the Democrats.

McKinley's victory was convincing. Massive Republican advertising and the faltering economy worked heavily against the Democrats. Further, Bryan's revivalistic style, so much loved by the farmers of the West and South, actually alienated many immigrant voters who would have ordinarily been Democratic supporters. Bryan failed to carry any Northern industrial state and lost such farm states as North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. In short, Bryan's message was too narrow.

Election of 1896
Candidates

Party

Electoral
Vote

Popular
Vote

William McKinley (OH)
Garret A. Hobart (NJ)

Republican

271

7,104,779

William J. Bryan (NE)
Arthur Sewall (ME)
Thomas E. Watson (GA)*

Democratic
(Populist)

176
(149)
(27)

6,502,925
(222,583)

John M. Palmer (IL)
Simon B. Buckner (KY)

National
Democratic

0

133,148

Joshua Levering (MD)
Hale Johnson (IL)

Prohibition

0

132,007

Charles H. Matchett (NY)
Matthew Maguire (NJ)

Socialist
Labor

0

36,274

Charles E. Bentley (NE)
James H. Southgate (NC)

National

0

13,969

*Thomas Watson was nominated by the Populist Party as Bryan's running mate. He drew a number of votes away from the regular nominee of the Democratic party, Arthur Sewall.


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