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"Soon the United States will have as many political parties as Spain and will be split up into innumerable factions and groups. . . . The following table of the rearranged parties is given:
(1) The gold Republican party.
(2) The free-silver Democrats, among whom are (a) those who want Populist support and (b) those who don't want Populist support.
(3) The free-silver Republicans.
(4) The gold Democrats, among whom are (a) those who will support McKinley and (b) those who will nominate a ticket of their own.
(5) The Prohibitionists.
(6) The bolting Prohibitionists.
(7) The Bryan Populists, among whom are (a) those who favor Bryan and Sewall and (b) those who are for Bryan and Watson.
(8) The anti-Bryan Populists.
(9) The voters who are on the fence.
(10) The voters who have taken to the woods."

--Mexican Herald, quoted in Public Opinion, 27 August 1896

Background


President Grover Cleveland, in his second term, had been hit with a major economic depression. Unemployment in the industrial sector was at more than 20%, and agricultural workers were even worse off, with crop prices dropping heavily. It seemed likely that the major issue of the 1896 election would be monetary policy. Most Republicans as well as many Democrats believed that the country should be kept on the gold standard, backing every dollar printed with gold reserves. However, there was a growing contingent of "Free Silver" advocates in the Democratic Party, who believed that the solution to the country's economic troubles was free coinage of silver at a ratio of 16 to 1 against gold coins. This would clearly cause mass inflation, which was seen as the way out of the depression. In the 1892 election, the Populist Party ran James B. Weaver as a free silver candidate, and won over a million votes. President Cleveland was firmly in favor of remaining on the gold standard, even going as far as to make a deal with financier J.P. Morgan to save the United States' gold reserves, selling him government bonds in exchange for $62 million worth of European gold. Morgan made a huge profit from this transaction, and there were rumors at the time that Cleveland did as well.

Party Conventions

Democrats

The Democrats could see that their only hope for winning was to nominate a free silver candidate, and distance themselves from Cleveland's administration. The major candidates for the Democratic nomination were Congressman Richard Bland of Kentucky, former Illinois governor Horace Boies, and the young Congressman from Nebraska, William Jennings Bryan. All three were strongly pro-silver. Bryan had made sure that he would address the assembled delegates last, and when it was finally his turn, he gave one of the most famous pieces of oratory in American history. Railing against the gold standard, Bryan closed with the oft-referenced lines, "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

Bryan was eventually nominated on the fifth ballot of the convention, making him at 36 the youngest presidential nominee ever by a major party. In order to alleviate fears over Bryan's anti-big-business positions, Arthur Sewall, a wealthy businessman, was chosen to be the Vice Presidential candidate. Gold standard Democrats, livid over the nomination of Bryan, split from the party, and nominated their own candidate for the National Democratic Party, Senator John Palmer of Illinois. Palmer was almost 80, over twice Bryan's age, and one of the oldest presidential candidates ever nominated.

The Populist Party, meeting at their national convention, voted to endorse Bryan as their candidate, but replaced Sewall, who was considered too anti-labor, with Thomas E. Watson, a Populist congressman.

Republicans

Ohio governor William McKinley was the clear favorite for the Republican nomination, and won easily at the convention on the first ballot. 21 pro-silver delegates, including two Republican senators, left the convention in protest and endorsed the Democratic ticket. McKinley chose as his running mate New Jersey businessman Garrett Hobart, and more importantly chose Ohio businessman Mark Hanna as his campaign manager. Hanna had worked on the successful presidential campaigns of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, and James A. Garfield in 1880, as well as both of McKinley's gubernatorial campaigns in Ohio. Hanna was widely criticized for his campaign tactics, in which he used his knowledge and skills from the business and advertising world to get his candidate elected.

General Election

Bryan threw himself into his campaign, launching an unprecedented speaking tour. In the space of ten weeks, he traveled through 27 states, giving hundreds of speeches to an estimated total of 5 million people, mostly focusing on workers' rights and the currency issue. This was completely unheard of in this time, when presidential were expected to rarely leave their homes during the campaign, sometimes giving brief addresses to party loyalists from their front porches.

McKinley ran a typically Republican "front porch" campaign, responding to the silver advocates by saying that free coinage would result in high prices and a weak currency. The Republicans also ran a much better-financed campaign than the Democrats, thanks to support from businessman such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. Hanna used this money to distribute huge volumes of campaign literature, outspending Bryan's campaign 20 to 1.

In many ways, the 1896 campaign was an important one in American history. Both parties solidified campaign tactics that they would continue to use, in only slightly modified form, up until the modern day. The Democrats formulated their populist, progressive, "friend-of-the-working-man" message, which found great success when used by Franklin D. Roosevelt. McKinley and the Republicans ran what has been called the first modern presidential campaign, taking large corporate contributions and advertising heavily.

Endgame

McKinley won, with the largest margin of victory since the election of 1872.

Final Popular Vote
William McKinley/Garrett Hobart - 7,035,638
William Jennings Bryan/Arthur Sewell - 6,467,946

Final Electoral Count
William McKinley/Garrett Hobart - 271
William Jennings Bryan/Arthur Sewell - 176*

*The Democratic electoral votes were actually split among two vice presidential candidates. Arthur Sewell received 149 votes, and Populist choice Thomas E. Watson received 27.


Sources:

http://projects.vassar.edu/1896/1896home.html
http://elections.harpweek.com/NewSite/1896/Overview-1896-1.htm
http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/specials/elections/1896/index.html
http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/seminar/unit8/home.htm
2004 World Almanac

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