1896 United States presidential election
The 1896 United States presidential election was the 28th quadrennial presidential election, held on Tuesday, November 3, 1896. Former Governor William McKinley, the Republican candidate, defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan. The 1896 campaign, which took place during an economic depression known as the Panic of 1893, was a realigning election that ended the old Third Party System and began the Fourth Party System.
All 447 electoral votes of the Electoral College
224 electoral votes needed to win
Presidential election results map. Red denotes those won by McKinley/Hobart, blue denotes states won by Bryan/Sewall and the Populist ticket of Bryan/Watson. Numbers indicate the number of electoral votes allotted to each state.
Incumbent Democratic President Grover Cleveland did not seek election to a second consecutive term, leaving the Democratic nomination open. Bryan, an attorney and former Congressman, galvanized support with his Cross of Gold speech, which called for a reform of the monetary system and attacked business leaders as the cause of ongoing economic depression. The 1896 Democratic National Convention repudiated the Cleveland administration and nominated Bryan on the fifth presidential ballot. Bryan then won the nomination of the Populist Party, which had won several states in 1892 and shared many of Bryan's policies. In opposition to Bryan, some conservative Bourbon Democrats formed the National Democratic Party and nominated Senator John M. Palmer. McKinley prevailed by a wide margin on the first ballot of the 1896 Republican National Convention.
Since the onset of the Panic of 1893, the nation had been mired in a deep economic depression, marked by low prices, low profits, high unemployment, and violent strikes. Economic issues, especially tariff policy and the question of whether the gold standard should be preserved for the money supply, were central issues. McKinley forged a conservative coalition in which businessmen, professionals, and prosperous farmers, and skilled factory workers turned off by Bryan's agrarian policies were heavily represented. McKinley was strongest in cities and in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and Pacific Coast. Republican campaign manager Mark Hanna pioneered many modern campaign techniques, facilitated by a $3.5 million budget. Bryan presented his campaign as a crusade of the working man against the rich, who impoverished America by limiting the money supply. Silver, he said, was in ample supply and if coined into money would restore prosperity while undermining the illicit power of the money trust. Bryan was strongest in the South, rural Midwest, and Rocky Mountain states. Bryan's moralistic rhetoric and crusade for inflation (to be generated by the institution of bimetallism) alienated conservatives. If not, McKinley, was very much conservative since he was born in Ohio, a Great Lake Region State.
Bryan campaigned vigorously throughout the swing states of the Midwest, while McKinley conducted a "front porch" campaign. At the end of an intensely heated contest, McKinley won a majority of the popular and electoral vote. Bryan won 46.7% of the popular vote, while Palmer won just under 1% of the vote. Turnout was very high, passing 90% of the eligible voters in many places. The Democratic Party's repudiation of its Bourbon faction largely gave Bryan and his supporters control of the Democratic Party until the 1920s, and set the stage for Republican domination of the Fourth Party System.
Republican Party nomination
|Republican Party Ticket, 1896|
|William McKinley||Garret Hobart|
|for President||for Vice President|
Governor of Ohio
|President of the|
New Jersey Senate
|Thomas B. Reed||Matthew S. Quay||Levi P. Morton||William B. Allison||Charles F. Manderson||Shelby M. Cullom|
Speaker of the House of Representatives
Governor of New York
At their convention in St. Louis, Missouri, held between June 16 and 18, 1896, the Republicans nominated William McKinley for president and New Jersey's Garret Hobart for vice-president. McKinley had just vacated the office of Governor of Ohio. Both candidates were easily nominated on first ballots.
McKinley's campaign manager, a wealthy and talented Ohio businessman named Mark Hanna, visited the leaders of large corporations and major, influential banks after the Republican Convention to raise funds for the campaign. Given that many businessmen and bankers were terrified of Bryan's populist rhetoric and demand for the end of the gold standard, Hanna had few problems in raising record amounts of money. As a result, Hanna raised a staggering $3.5 million for the campaign and outspent the Democrats by an estimated 5-to-1 margin. This sum would be equivalent to approximately $85 million, according to the inflation calculator of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Major McKinley was the last veteran of the American Civil War to be nominated for president by either major party.
|Presidential Nominating Ballot||Vice-Presidential Nominating Ballot|
|William McKinley||661.5||924||Garret A. Hobart||535.5||924|
|Thomas Brackett Reed||84.5||H. Clay Evans||277.5|
|Matthew S. Quay||61.5||Morgan Bulkeley||39|
|Levi P. Morton||58||James A. Walker||24|
|William B. Allison||35.5||Charles W. Lippitt||8|
|James D. Cameron||1||Thomas Brackett Reed||3|
|Not Voting||20||Chauncey Depew||3|
|John Mellen Thurston||2|
|Frederick Dent Grant||2|
|Levi P. Morton||1|
Democratic Party nomination
|Democratic Party Ticket, 1896|
|William Jennings Bryan||Arthur Sewall|
|for President||for Vice President|
|Former U.S. Representative
for Nebraska's 1st
|Director of the|
Maine Central Railroad
One month after McKinley's nomination, supporters of silver-backed currency took control of the Democratic convention held in Chicago on July 7–11. Most of the Southern and Western delegates were committed to implementing the "free silver" ideas of the Populist Party. The convention repudiated President Cleveland's gold standard policies and then repudiated Cleveland himself. This, however, left the convention wide open: there was no obvious successor to Cleveland. A two-thirds vote was required for the nomination and the silverites had it in spite of the extreme regional polarization of the delegates. In a test vote on an anti-silver measure, the Eastern states (from Maryland to Maine), with 28% of the delegates, voted 96% in favor. The other delegates voted 91% against, so the silverites could count on a majority of 67% of the delegates.
An attorney, former congressman, and unsuccessful Senate candidate named William Jennings Bryan filled the void. A superb orator, Bryan hailed from Nebraska and spoke for the farmers who were suffering from the economic depression following the Panic of 1893. At the convention, Bryan delivered what has been considered one of the greatest political speeches in American history, the "Cross of Gold" Speech. Bryan presented a passionate defense of farmers and factory workers struggling to survive the economic depression, and he attacked big-city business owners and leaders as the cause of much of their suffering. He called for reform of the monetary system, an end to the gold standard, and government relief efforts for farmers and others hurt by the economic depression. Bryan's speech was so dramatic that after he had finished many delegates carried him on their shoulders around the convention hall.
The following day, eight names were placed in nomination: Richard "Silver Dick" Bland, William J. Bryan, Claude Matthews, Horace Boies, Joseph Blackburn, John R. McLean, Robert E. Pattison, and Sylvester Pennoyer. Despite a strong initial showing by Bland, who led on the first three ballots, Bryan's electrifying speech helped him gain the momentum required to win the nomination, which he did on the fifth ballot after most of the other candidates withdrew in his favor.
Following Bland's defeat, his supporters instead attempted to nominate him as Bryan's running-mate; however, Bland was more interested in winning back his former seat in the House of Representatives, and so withdrew his name from consideration despite leading the early rounds of voting. Arthur Sewall, a wealthy shipbuilder from Maine, was eventually chosen as the vice-presidential nominee. It was felt that Sewall's wealth might encourage him to help pay some campaign expenses. At just 36 years of age, Bryan was only a year older than the minimum age required by the Constitution to be president. Bryan remains the youngest person ever nominated by a major party for president.
|Presidential Nominating Ballots (1 Thru 5)||Vice-Presidential Nominating Ballots (1 Thru 5)|
|William J. Bryan||137||197||219||280||652||930||Arthur Sewall||100||37||97||261||568||930|
|Richard P. Bland||235||281||291||241||11||John R. McLean||111||158||210||298||32|
|Robert E. Pattison||97||100||97||97||95||Richard P. Bland||62||294||255||0||0|
|Joseph Blackburn||82||41||27||27||0||Joseph C. Sibley||163||113||50||0||0|
|Horace Boies||67||37||36||33||0||George F. Williams||76||16||15||9||9|
|John R. McLean||54||53||54||46||0||John W. Daniel||11||0||6||54||36|
|Claude Matthews||37||34||34||36||0||Walter Clark||50||22||22||46||22|
|Benjamin Tillman||17||0||0||0||0||James R. Williams||22||13||0||0||0|
|Adlai E. Stevenson||6||10||9||8||8||William F. Harrity||19||21||19||11||11|
|Sylvester Pennoyer||8||8||0||0||0||Joseph Blackburn||20||0||0||0||0|
|Henry M. Teller||8||8||0||0||0||Horace Boies||20||0||0||0||0|
|William E. Russell||2||0||0||0||0||J. Hamilton Lewis||11||0||0||0||0|
|David B. Hill||1||1||1||1||1||Robert E. Pattison||2||1||1||1||1|
|James E. Campbell||1||0||0||0||0||George W. Fithian||1||0||0||0||0|
|David Turpie||0||0||0||0||1||Henry M. Teller||1||0||0||0||0|
|Not Voting||178||160||162||161||162||Stephen M. White||1||0||0||0||0|
|Presidential Nominating Ballots In Detail||Vice-Presidential Nominating Ballots In Detail|
Third parties and independents
Prohibition Party nomination
|Prohibition Party ticket, 1896|
|Joshua Levering||Hale Johnson|
|for President||for Vice President|
|Baptist leader and businessman
|Former Mayor of|
|Louis C. Hughes||Charles E. Bentley|
|11th Governor of
the Arizona Territory
|Party State Chairman|
|W:On First Ballot||DTBN|
The Prohibition Party found itself going into the convention divided into two factions, each unwilling to give ground or compromise with the other. The "Broad-Gauge" wing, led by Charles Bentley and former Kansas Governor John St. John, demanded the inclusion of planks endorsing the free coinage of silver at 16:1 and of women's suffrage, the former refusing to accept the nomination if such amendments to the party platform were not approved. The "Narrow-Gauge" wing, which were led by Professor Samuel Dickie of Michigan and rallied around the candidacy of Joshua Levering, demanded that the party platform remain exclusively one dedicated to the prohibition of alcohol. It wasn't long into the convention when conflict between the two sides broke out over the nomination of a permanent chairman, with a number of presented candidates for the position withdrawing before Oliver Stewart of Illinois, a "Broad-Gauger", was nominated. A minority report made by St. John that supported the free coinage of silver, government control of railroads and telegraphs, an income tax and referendums was prevented from being tabled giving "Broad-Gaugers" confidence, but a number of those who voted in favor of the report were actually fence-sitters, undecided on how to vote, or were against gagging the report. After the report was brought forward by a majority of 188, "Narrow-Gaugers" campaigned among wavering delegates of the Northeast and Midwest in an effort to convince them of the electoral consequences that would come should the minority report be adopted, that Party gains in States like New York would reverse overnight in the face of free coinage and populism. When St. John's report was brought up to a formal vote the margins had largely reversed, with it being rejected 492 to 310. With the silver delegates still in shock and St. John attempting to move for a reconsideration, a move was made by Illinois "Narrow-Gaugers" to offer as a substitute to both the minority and majority reports a single plank platform centered around Prohibition. A rising vote was taken in lieu of a roll call, with the "Narrow-Gauge" Platform winning the vote and being adopted.
In an attempt to mollify suffragists who were incensed at the lack of a plank endorsing women's suffrage, the plank itself was adopted through a resolution by the Convention by a near unanimous vote. By the time it came to the Party's nomination for President, many of the "Broad-Gaugers" were already openly considering bolting and running their own candidate as it became increasingly apparent that the "Narrow-Gaugers" had brought a majority of the convention under their influence, formal action was deferred until after the nomination for President was made. With Charles Bentley refusing to be nominating under the single-plank platform an attempt was made to nominate the recently retired Governor of the Arizona Territory, Louis Hughes, but as it became apparent that the "Narrow-Gauger" Joshua Levering was set to receive the support of most of the convention delegates, they opted to withdraw Hughes's name. Once Levering's nomination was confirmed without any visible opposition, around 200 of those who were suffragists, silverites or populists bolted the convention, lead by Charles Bentley and John St. John, and would join with the National Reform "Party" to create the National Party. Afterwards the convention nominated with unanimity Hale Johnson of Illinois for the Vice Presidency.
National Party nomination
|National Party ticket, 1896|
|Charles E. Bentley||James H. Southgate|
|for President||for Vice President|
|Party State Chairman
|Party State Chairman|
from North Carolina
Initially known as the "National Reform Party", the convention itself started only a day before the Prohibition National Convention, also being held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Though initially only a gathering of eight or so delegates, it was hoped that any bolters from the Prohibition Party might find their way there and would support the nomination of Representative Joseph C. Sibley for President. A sizable bolt did indeed occur upon the nomination of Joshua Levering by the Prohibition Party to the Presidency, with Charles E. Bentley and former Kansas Governor John St. John leading a walkout of "Broad-Gaugers" from their convention, St. John himself exclaiming that the regular convention had been "...bought up by Wall Street." The two groups would reorganize as the "National Party" and swiftly nominated Charles Bentley for the Presidency, with James Southgate, the State Chairman for the North Carolina Prohibition Party, as his running-mate. The delegates approved the minority report that had been rejected at the Prohibitionist Convention calling for free coinage and greenbacks, government control of railroads and telegraphs, direct election of Senators and the President, and an income tax among others.
Socialist Labor Party nomination
|Socialist Labor Party ticket, 1896|
|Charles Matchett||Matthew Maguire|
|for President||for Vice President|
from New York
Paterson, New Jersey
The Socialist Labor Convention was held in New York City on July 9, 1896. The convention nominated Charles Matchett of New York and Matthew Maguire of New Jersey. Its platform favored reduction in hours of labor; possession by the federal government of mines, railroads, canals, telegraphs, and telephones; possession by municipalities of water-works, gas-works, and electric plants; the issue of money by the federal government alone; the employment of the unemployed by the public authorities; abolition of the veto power; abolition of the United States Senate; women's suffrage; and uniform criminal law throughout the Union.
Peoples' Party nomination
|Peoples' Party Ticket, 1896|
|William Jennings Bryan||Thomas E. Watson|
|for President||for Vice President|
|Former U.S. Representative
for Nebraska's 1st
|Former U.S. Representative|
for Georgia's 10th
|Candidates in this section are sorted by their highest vote count on the nominating ballots|
|Seymour F. Norton||Eugene V. Debs||Jacob S. Coxey|
|Writer and Philanthropist
|Trade Unionist and Labor leader
|Businessman and Political activist|
Of the several third parties active in 1896, by far the most prominent was the People's Party. Formed in 1892, the Populists represented the philosophy of agrarianism (derived from Jeffersonian democracy), which held that farming was a superior way of life that was being exploited by bankers and middlemen. The Populists attracted cotton farmers in the South and wheat farmers in the West, but very few farmers in the Northeast, South, West, and rural Midwest. In the presidential election of 1892, Populist candidate James B. Weaver carried four states, and in 1894, the Populists scored victories in congressional and state legislature races in a number of Southern and Western states. In the Southern states, including Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas, the wins were obtained by electoral fusion with the Republicans against the dominant Bourbon Democrats, whereas in the rest of the country, fusion, if practiced, was typically undertaken with the Democrats, as in the state of Washington. By 1896, some Populists believed that they could replace the Democrats as the main opposition party to the Republicans. However, the Democrats' nomination of Bryan, who supported many Populist goals and ideas, placed the party in a dilemma. Torn between choosing their own presidential candidate or supporting Bryan, the party leadership decided that nominating their own candidate would simply divide the forces of reform and hand the election to the more conservative Republicans. At their national convention in 1896, the Populists chose Bryan as their presidential nominee. However, to demonstrate that they were still independent from the Democrats, the Populists also chose former Georgia Representative Thomas E. Watson as their vice-presidential candidate instead of Arthur Sewall. Bryan eagerly accepted the Populist nomination, but was vague as to whether, if elected, he would choose Watson as his vice-president instead of Sewall. With this election, the Populists began to be absorbed into the Democratic Party; within a few elections the party would disappear completely. The 1896 election was particularly detrimental to the Populist Party in the South; the party divided itself between members who favored cooperation with the Democrats to achieve reform at the national level and members who favored cooperation with the Republicans to achieve reform at a state level.
As a result of the double nomination, both the Bryan-Sewall Democratic ticket and the Bryan-Watson Populist ticket appeared on the ballot in many states. Although the Populist ticket did not win the popular vote in any state, 27 electors for Bryan cast their vice-presidential vote for Watson instead of Sewall. (The votes came from the following states: Arkansas 3, Louisiana 4, Missouri 4, Montana 1, Nebraska 4, North Carolina 5, South Dakota 2, Utah 1, Washington 2, Wyoming 1.)
|Presidential Ballot||Vice Presidential Ballot|
|William Jennings Bryan||1,042||Thomas E. Watson||469.5|
|Seymour F. Norton||321||Arthur Sewall||257.5|
|Eugene V. Debs||8|
|Ignatius L. Donnelly||3|
|Jacob S. Coxey||1|
Silver Party nomination
|Silver Party ticket, 1896|
|William Jennings Bryan||Arthur Sewall|
|for President||for Vice President|
|Former U.S. Representative
for Nebraska's 1st
|Director of the|
Maine Central Railroad
The Silver Party was organized in 1892. Near the beginning of that year, U.S. Senators from silver-producing states (Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, and Montana) began objecting to President Benjamin Harrison's economic policies and advocated the free coinage of silver. Senator Henry Teller notified the Senate that if the two major parties did not back down on their financial policies, the four western states would back a third party. The Portland Morning Oregonian reported on June 27, 1892 that a Silver Party was being organized along those lines.
Nevada silverites called a state convention to be held on June 5, 1892, just days following the close of the Democratic National Convention. The convention noted that neither the Republicans or Democrats addressed the silver concerns of western states and officially organized the "Silver Party of Nevada." Proceeding by itself, the Silver Party swept the state in 1892; James Weaver, the People's Party nominee for President running on the Silver ticket, won 66.8% of the vote. Francis Newlands was elected to the U.S. House with 72.5% of the vote. The Silverites took control of the legislature, assuring the election of William Stewart to the U.S. Senate.
The success of the Nevada silverites spurred their brethren in Colorado to action; the Colorado Silver Party never materialized, however.
In the 1894 midterm elections, the Silver Party remained a Nevada party. It swept all statewide offices, formerly held by Republicans. John Edward Jones was elected Governor with 50% of the vote; Newlands was re-elected with 44%.
Following the Democratic Party debacle in 1894, James Weaver began agitating for the creation of a nationwide Silver Party. He altered the People's Party platform from 1892 and eliminated planks he felt would be divisive for a larger party and began to lobby silver men around the nation. The first major statement by the national Silver Party was an address delivered to the American Bimetallic League, printed in the Emporia Daily Gazette on March 6, 1895. Letterhead for the nascent party promoted U.S. Representative Joseph Sibley of Pennsylvania for President, noting that his endorsement by the Prohibitionists would secure that party's support.
Silver leaders met in Washington DC on January 22 to discuss holding a national convention. They decided to wait until after the conventions of the two major parties in case one of them agreed to the 16:1 coinage demands. Just a few days later, however, party regulars convinced the leaders to change course. On January 29, the leaders issued a call for a national convention to be held in St. Louis on July 22. J.J. Mott, the Silver Party National Chairman, went to great lengths to organize state parties, but his efforts did not produce dramatic results. The Silver State convention in Ohio was attended by just 20 people, even though the president of the Bimetallic League, A.J. Warner, lived there.
Although most Silverites had been pushing the nomination of Senator Teller, the situation changed with the Democratic nomination of William Jennings Bryan. Congressman Newlands was in Chicago as the official Silver Party visitor, and he announced on July 10 that the Silver Party should endorse the Democratic ticket. Chairman Mott, who was in St. Louis making final arrangements for the Silver National Convention, told a reporter five days later "All the Silver Party wants is silver, and the Democratic platform will give us that." I.B. Stevens, a member of the executive committee, told a reporter that the Silver Party "will bring to the support of [Bryan] hundreds of thousands who do not wish to vote a Democratic ticket."
On July 25, both Bryan and Arthur Sewall would be nominated by acclamation.
National Democratic Party nomination
|National Democratic Party ticket, 1896|
|John M. Palmer||Simon Bolivar Buckner|
|for President||for Vice President|
Governor of Kentucky
|Candidates in this section are sorted by their highest vote count on the nominating ballots, then by reverse date of withdrawal|
|Edward S. Bragg||Henry Watterson||James Broadhead||Daniel W. Lawler||Grover Cleveland|
|U.S. Ambassador to Mexico
for Kentucky's 5th
for Missouri's 9th
|24th U.S. President|
from New York
|130.5 votes||W:On First Ballot||DTBN||DTBN||DTBN|
The pro-gold Democrats reacted to Bryan's nomination with a mixture of anger, desperation, and confusion. A number of pro-gold Bourbon Democrats urged a "bolt" and the formation of a third party. In response, a hastily arranged assembly on July 24 organized the National Democratic Party. A follow-up meeting in August scheduled a nominating convention for September in Indianapolis and issued an appeal to fellow Democrats. In this document, the National Democratic Party portrayed itself as the legitimate heir to Presidents Jefferson, Jackson, and Cleveland.
Delegates from forty-one states gathered at the National Democratic Party's national nominating convention in Indianapolis on September 2. Some delegates planned to nominate Cleveland, but they relented after a telegram arrived stating that he would not accept. Senator William Freeman Vilas from Wisconsin, the main drafter of the National Democratic Party's platform, was a favorite of the delegates. However, Vilas refused to run as the party's sacrificial lamb. The choice instead was John M. Palmer, a 79-year-old former Senator from Illinois. Simon Bolivar Buckner, a 73-year-old former governor of Kentucky, was nominated by acclamation for vice-president. The ticket, symbolic of post-Civil War reconciliation, featured the oldest combined age of the candidates in American history.
Despite their advanced ages, Palmer and Buckner embarked on a busy speaking tour, including visits to most major cities in the East. This won them considerable respect from the party faithful, although some found it hard to take the geriatric campaigning seriously. "You would laugh yourself sick could you see old Palmer," wrote lawyer Kenesaw Mountain Landis. "He has actually gotten it into his head he is running for office." The Palmer ticket was considered to be a vehicle to elect McKinley for some Gold Democrats, such as William Collins Whitney and Abram Hewitt, the treasurer of the National Democratic Party, and they received quiet financial support from Mark Hanna. Palmer himself said at a campaign stop that if "this vast crowd casts its vote for William McKinley next Tuesday, I shall charge them with no sin." There was even some cooperation with the Republican Party, especially in finances. The Republicans hoped that Palmer could draw enough Democratic votes from Bryan to tip marginal Midwestern and border states into McKinley's column. In a private letter, Hewitt underscored the "entire harmony of action" between both parties in standing against Bryan.
However, the National Democratic Party was not merely an adjunct to the McKinley campaign. An important goal was to nurture a loyal remnant for future victory. Repeatedly they depicted Bryan's prospective defeat, and a credible showing for Palmer, as paving the way for ultimate recapture of the Democratic Party, and this did indeed happen in 1904.
|Ballot||1st before shifts||1st after shifts|
|John M. Palmer||757.5||769.5|
|Edward S. Bragg||130.5||118.5|
While the Republican Party entered 1896 assuming that the Democrats were in shambles and victory would be easy, especially after the unprecedented Republican landslide in the congressional elections of 1894, the nationwide emotional response to the Bryan candidacy changed everything. By summer, it appeared that Bryan was ahead in the South and West and probably also in the Midwest. An entirely new strategy was called for by the McKinley campaign. It was designed to educate voters in the money issues, to demonstrate silverite fallacies, and to portray Bryan himself as a dangerous crusader. McKinley would be portrayed as the safe and sound champion of jobs and sound money, with his high tariff proposals guaranteed to return prosperity for everyone. The McKinley campaign would be national and centralized, using the Republican National Committee as the tool of the candidate, instead of the state parties' tool. Furthermore, the McKinley campaign stressed his pluralistic commitment to prosperity for all groups (including minorities).
The McKinley campaign invented a new form of campaign financing that has dominated American politics ever since. Instead of asking office holders to return a cut of their pay, Hanna went to financiers and industrialists and made a business proposition. He explained that Bryan would win if nothing happened, and that the McKinley team had a winning counterattack that would be very expensive. He then would ask them how much it was worth to the business not to have Bryan as president. He suggested an amount and was happy to take a check. Hanna had moved beyond partisanship and campaign rhetoric to a businessman's thinking about how to achieve a desired result. He raised $3.5 million. Hanna brought in banker Charles G. Dawes to run his Chicago office and spend about $2 million in the critical region.
Meanwhile, traditional funders of the Democratic Party (mostly financiers from the Northeast) rejected Bryan, although he did manage to raise about $500,000. Some of it came from businessmen with interests in silver mining.
The financial disparity grew larger and larger as the Republicans funded more and more rallies, speeches, and torchlight parades, as well as hundreds of millions of pamphlets attacking Bryan and praising McKinley. Lacking a systematic fund-raising system, Bryan was unable to tap his potential supporters, and he had to rely on passing the hat at rallies. National Chairman Jones pleaded, "No matter in how small sums, no matter by what humble contributions, let the friends of liberty and national honor contribute all they can."
Republican attacks on Bryan
Increasingly, the Republicans personalized their attacks on Bryan as a dangerous religious fanatic. The counter-crusading rhetoric focused on Bryan as a reckless revolutionary whose policies would destroy the economic system. Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld was running for re-election after having pardoned several of the anarchists convicted in the Haymarket bombings. Republican posters and speeches linked Altgeld and Bryan as two dangerous anarchists. The Republican Party tried any number of tactics to ridicule Bryan's economic policies. In one case they printed fake dollar bills which had Bryan's face and read "IN GOD WE TRUST ... FOR THE OTHER 53 CENTS," thus illustrating their claim that a dollar bill would be worth only 47 cents if it was backed by silver instead of gold.
The Democratic Party in Eastern and Midwestern cities had a strong German Catholic base that was alienated by free silver and inflationist panaceas. They showed little enthusiasm for Bryan, although many were worried that a Republican victory would bring prohibition into play. The Irish Catholics disliked Bryan's revivalistic rhetoric and worried about prohibition as well. However their leaders decided to stick with Bryan, since the departure of so many Bourbon businessmen from the party left the Irish increasingly in control.
Labor unions and skilled workers
The Bryan campaign appealed first of all to farmers. It told urban workers that their return to prosperity was possible only if the farmers prospered first. Bryan made the point bluntly in the "Cross of Gold" speech, delivered in Chicago just 25 years after that city had indeed burned down:
Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again; but destroy our farms, and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.
The main labor unions were reluctant to endorse Bryan because their members feared inflation. Railroad workers especially worried that Bryan's silver programs would bankrupt the railroads, which were in a shaky financial condition in the depression and whose bonds were payable in gold. Factory workers saw no advantage in inflation to help miners and farmers, because their urban cost of living would shoot up and they would be hurt. The McKinley campaign gave special attention to skilled workers, especially in the Midwest and adjacent states. Secret polls show that large majorities of railroad and factory workers voted for McKinley.
The fall campaign
Throughout the campaign the South and Mountain states appeared certain to vote for Bryan, whereas the East was certain for McKinley. In play were the Midwest and the Border States.
The Republican Party amassed an unprecedented war chest at all levels: national, state and local. Outspent and shut out of the party's traditional newspapers, Bryan decided his best chance to win the election was to conduct a vigorous national speaking tour by train. His fiery crusading rhetoric to huge audiences would make his campaign a newsworthy story that the hostile press would have to cover, and he could speak to the voters directly instead of through editorials. He was the first presidential candidate since Stephen Douglas in 1860 to canvass directly, and the first ever to criss-cross the nation and meet voters in person.
The novelty of seeing a visiting presidential candidate, combined with Bryan's spellbinding oratory and the passion of his believers, generated huge crowds. Silverites welcomed their hero with all-day celebrations of parades, band music, picnic meals, endless speeches, and undying demonstrations of support. Bryan focused his efforts on the Midwest, which everyone agreed would be the decisive battleground in the election. In just 100 days, Bryan gave over 500 speeches to several million people. His record was 36 speeches in one day in St. Louis. Relying on just a few hours of sleep a night, he traveled 18,000 miles by rail to address five million people, often in a hoarse voice; he would explain that he left his real voice at the previous stops where it was still rallying the people.
In contrast to Bryan's dramatic efforts, McKinley conducted a novel "front porch" campaign from his home in Canton, Ohio. Instead of having McKinley travel to see the voters, Mark Hanna brought 500,000 voters by train to McKinley's home. Once there, McKinley would greet the men from his porch. His well-organized staff prepared both the remarks of the visiting delegations and the candidate's responses, focusing the comments on the assigned topic of the day. The remarks were issued to the newsmen and telegraphed nationwide to appear in the next day's papers. Bryan, with practically no staff, gave much the same talk over and over again. McKinley labeled Bryan's proposed social and economic reforms as a serious threat to the national economy. With the depression following the Panic of 1893 coming to an end, support for McKinley's more conservative economic policies increased, while Bryan's more radical policies began to lose support among Midwestern farmers and factory workers.
To ensure victory, Hanna paid large numbers of Republican orators (including Theodore Roosevelt) to travel around the nation denouncing Bryan as a dangerous radical. There were also reports that some potentially Democratic voters were intimidated into voting for McKinley. For example, some factory owners posted signs the day before the election announcing that, if Bryan won the election, the factory would be closed and the workers would lose their jobs.
Bryan's midsummer surge in the Midwest played out as the intense Republican counter-crusade proved effective. Bryan spent most of October in the Midwest, making 160 of his final 250 speeches there. Morgan noted, "full organization, Republican party harmony, a campaign of education with the printed and spoken word would more than counteract" Bryan's speechmaking.
Several of Bryan's advisors recommended additional campaigning in the Upper South States of Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. Another plan called for a coastal tour from Washington State to Southern California. Bryan however, opted to concentrate in the Mid-West and to launch a unity tour into the heavily Republican Northeast. Bryan saw no chance of winning in New England, but felt that he needed to make a truly national appeal. On election day the results from the Pacific Coast and Upper South would be the closest of the election.
McKinley secured a solid victory by carrying the core of the East and Northeast, while Bryan did well among the farmers of the South, West, and rural Midwest. The large German-American voting bloc supported McKinley, who gained large majorities among the middle class, skilled factory workers, railroad workers, and large-scale farmers. The national popular vote was rather close, as McKinley took 51% to Bryan's 47%. In the electoral college McKinley won in a landslide, receiving 271 electoral votes (61%) to Bryan's 176 (224 were needed to win).
The National Democrats did not carry any states, but they did divide the Democratic vote in some states and helped the Republicans carry the state of Kentucky. Gold Democrats made much of the fact that Palmer's small vote in Kentucky was higher than McKinley's thin margin in that state. This was the first time a Republican presidential candidate had ever carried Kentucky, and they were not to do so again until Calvin Coolidge in 1924. From this, they concluded that Palmer had siphoned off needed Democratic votes and hence thrown the state to McKinley. However, McKinley would have won the overall election even if he had lost Kentucky to Bryan.
Mayor Tom L. Johnson of Cleveland, Ohio, summed up the campaign as the "first great protest of the American people against monopoly – the first great struggle of the masses in our country against the privileged classes."
According to a 2017 National Bureau of Economic Research paper, "Bryan did well where mortgage interest rates were high, railroad penetration was low, and crop prices had declined by most over the previous decade. Using our estimates, we show that further declines in crop prices or increases in interest rates would have been enough to tip the Electoral College in Bryan's favor. But to change the outcome, the additional fall in crop prices would have had to be large."
McKinley received a little more than seven million votes, Bryan a little less than six and a half million, about 800,000 in excess of the Democratic vote in 1892. It was larger than the Democratic Party was to poll in 1900, 1904, or 1912. It was somewhat less, however, than the combined vote for the Democratic and Populist nominees had been in 1892. In contrast, McKinley received nearly 2,000,000 more votes than had been cast for Benjamin Harrison, the Republican nominee, in 1892. The Republican vote was to be but slightly increased during the next decade.
Geography of results
One-half of the total vote of the nation was polled in eight states carried by McKinley (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin). In these states, Bryan not only ran far behind the Republican candidate, but also polled considerably less than half of his total vote.
In only one other section, in the six states of New England, was the Republican lead great; the Republican vote (614,972) was more than twice the Democratic vote (242,938), and every county was carried by the Republicans.
The West North Central section gave a slight lead to McKinley, as did the Pacific section. Nevertheless, within these sections, the states of Missouri, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Washington were carried by Bryan.
In the South Atlantic section and in the East South Central section, the Democratic lead was pronounced, and in the West South Central section and in the Mountain section, the vote for Bryan was overwhelming. In these four sections, comprising 21 states, McKinley carried only 322 counties and four states – Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, and Kentucky.
A striking feature of this examination of the state returns is found in the overwhelming lead for one or the other party in 22 of the 45 states. It was true of the McKinley vote in every New England state and in New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. It was also true of the Bryan vote in eight states of the lower South and five states of the Mountain West. Sectionalism was thus marked in this first election of the Fourth Party System.
This was the last election in which the Democrats won South Dakota until 1932, the last in which the Democrats won Utah and Washington until 1916, the last in which the Democrats won Kansas and Wyoming until 1912, and the last in which the Democrats won Nebraska until 1908. It was also the last time that South Dakota and Washington voted against the Republicans until they voted for the Progressive Party in 1912. This also constitutes the only election since their statehoods when a Republican won the presidency without winning Kansas, South Dakota, Utah, or Wyoming. Today these are solidly Republican states and have not backed a Democratic nominee since Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide over Barry Goldwater.
In the South, there were numerous Republican counties, notably in Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia. Even in Georgia, a state in the Deep South, there were counties returning Republican majorities. This was the result of an attempt by Republican politicians to heal sectional resentment and make the South competitive.
While traveling the South in 1895, McKinley realized that many conservative Southern whites were angry at the populist radicals who controlled the Democratic Party in their states. White businessmen of Georgia wanted the support of a party that would oppose regulation and taxation as long as it would allow them to preserve white supremacy. The possibility of preserving white supremacy without offending loyal black Republicans seemed like a possibility after black leader Booker T. Washington gave a speech in 1895 that proposed the "Atlanta Compromise", which held that whites should support blacks in their struggle for economic independence as they learned trade and industry, and in return blacks would not challenge the political or social order of Jim Crow. The policy was somewhat of a success because McKinley won 37% of Georgia's vote (the closest a Republican would come to winning the state until 1928).
|Presidential candidate||Party||Home state||Popular vote||Electoral
|Count||Percentage||Vice-presidential candidate||Home state||Electoral vote|
|William McKinley||Republican||Ohio||7,111,607||51.03%||271||Garret A. Hobart||New Jersey||271|
|William Jennings Bryan||Democratic – People's||Nebraska||6,509,052(a)||46.70%||176||Arthur Sewall(b)||Maine||149|
|Thomas E. Watson(c)||Georgia||27|
|John M. Palmer||National Democratic||Illinois||134,645||0.97%||0||Simon Bolivar Buckner||Kentucky||0|
|Joshua Levering||Prohibition||Maryland||131,312||0.94%||0||Hale Johnson||Illinois||0|
|Charles Matchett||Socialist Labor||New York||36,373||0.26%||0||Matthew Maguire||New Jersey||0|
|Charles Eugene Bentley||National Prohibition||Nebraska||13,968||0.10%||0||James H. Southgate||North Carolina||0|
|Needed to win||224||224|
(a) Includes 222,583 votes as the People's nominee
(b) Sewall was Bryan's Democratic running mate.
(c) Watson was Bryan's People's running mate.
Geography of results
Results by state
|States won by McKinley/Hobart|
|States won by Bryan/Sewall or Bryan/Watson|
|William Jennings Bryan
Margin of victory less than 1% (26 electoral votes):
- Kentucky, 0.06%
- South Dakota, 0.22%
- California, 0.64%
Margin of victory less than 5% (55 electoral votes):
- Oregon, 2.09%
- Indiana, 2.85%
- Kansas, 3.69%
- Wyoming, 3.74%
- Ohio, 4.78%
Margin of victory between 5% and 10% (66 electoral votes):
- Nebraska, 5.35%
- West Virginia, 5.40%
- Tennessee, 5.76%
- North Carolina, 5.82%
- Virginia, 6.56%
- Missouri, 8.71%
Counties with Highest Percent of Vote (Republican)
- Zapata County, Texas 94.34%
- Leslie County, Kentucky 91.39%
- Addison County, Vermont 89.17%
- Unicoi County, Tennessee 89.04%
- Keweenaw County, Michigan 88.96%
Counties with Highest Percent of Vote (Democratic)
- West Carroll Parish, Louisiana 99.84%
- Leflore County, Mississippi 99.68%
- Smith County, Mississippi 99.26%
- Pitkin County, Colorado 99.21%
- Neshoba County, Mississippi 99.15%
Counties with Highest Percent of Vote (Populist)
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to United States presidential election, 1896.|
- United States presidential election of 1896 at the Encyclopædia Britannica
- Presidential Election of 1896: A Resource Guide from the Library of Congress
- 1896 popular vote by counties
- How close was the 1896 election? — Michael Sheppard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- McKinley & Hobart campaign handkerchief in the Staten Island Historical Society Online Collections Database
- Election of 1896 in Counting the Votes