The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Date: November 2015
Duration: 15 hours 14 minutes
As the presidential campaign started, America was in the midst of dramatic demographic, economic and political changes. A rapidly growing immigrant population made white Anglo-Saxon Protestants a shrinking share of the electorate. An explosion of new industries and technologies raised thorny questions about the power of big corporations, rising income inequality, and the growing number of workers without skills to compete in a global market. And more and more, the two parties found it difficult to compromise. The emergence of a skilled politician who understood these challenges and applied his considerable talents to them made this presidential election a hinge point for the nation. By winning the 1896 presidential election, William McKinley--"The Major," as he preferred to be called--changed the arc of American history, revitalized the Republican party, and created a governing majority that dominated the country's politics for the next 30 years. McKinley ran the first truly modern presidential campaign. And it was, for its time, a shockingly different one for a Republican candidate.
Matched in the general election against the dynamic and charismatic Democrat William Jennings Bryan, McKinley faced a key decision. Should he play it safe, avoid contentious stands and depend upon denouncing the poor record of the Democratic incumbent? Or should he take the riskier course of accentuating his differences with Bryan? McKinley chose the latter. He offered bold and controversial answers to the nation's most pressing challenges. While doing so, he alienated factions within his party and longtime allies, but he won the White House.
McKinley knew the GOP could not win with its traditional white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant base. He reached out to diverse ethnic groups and became the first Republican presidential hopeful to openly seek the endorsement of Catholic Church leaders. And he set himself against the wealthy Gilded Age Republicans who dominated through corruption. He ran for the nomination on the slogan, "The Man Against the Bosses," thereby thrilling a rising generation of reform-minded voters. Because he stood for the middle class, McKinley even captured the endorsement of the past president of the American Federation of Labor, the nation's largest union.
Much of what we think we know about this election is wrong. This campaign was not led, as popular history holds, by Mark Hanna, a wealthy Cleveland industrialist whom William Randolph Hearst's newspapers claimed was the puppet master and McKinley merely a ventriloquist's dummy. The strategist behind the campaign was McKinley himself, a particularly skilled practical politican and thoughtful visionary, and his actual manager was not Mark Hanna, but a thirty-something Chicago lawyer. McKinley found the resources to do careful targeting of voters and unusual outreach, and skillfully used new technologies. He made bold gambles, and he got a few lucky breaks. But most importantly, he won because he had an audacious strategy and a powerful message.
The 1896 election is a compelling drama in its own right. But McKinley's brilliant strategies also offer important lessons for both political parties today, which find themselves in an age similarly marked by intense partisanship, deep philosophical disagreements, a changing electorate and an even more rapidly changing country.