The year 1896 hardly evokes a sense of modernity among today’s audiences. At the time, there were just 45 stars on the American flag, telephones were barely 20 years old, and nearly 50% of the population worked in agriculture or on farms. However, despite the apparent anachronism of the period, there is one context in which 1896 helped establish the modern world we live in today: politics. The Presidential Election of 1896—a contest between Republican Governor William McKinley of Ohio and William Jennings Bryan, his Democratic opponent—has been widely described as “the first modern election,” and many of the strategies and tactics pioneered on those campaigns are still in use today.
The shadow of economic depression lingered over the country as the election approached. Just three years earlier, the catastrophic Panic of 1893—brought on by the collapse of international commodity prices—led to widespread bank failures, unemployment, and civil unrest, and these conditions lingered as Republicans and Democrats nominated candidates for the presidency in the summer of 1896. The GOP put forth McKinley, the well-respected governor of Ohio; after a lengthy battle, the Democrats finally nominated Bryan, a passionate moral crusader and former congressman from Nebraska.
Bryan, a zealous campaigner, crisscrossed the nation, but he never built a campaign structure beyond his individual presence and was ultimately unable to win the support of his base. On the other hand, McKinley and his campaign manager, the businessman Mark Hanna, would go on to write the book on modern campaigning.
The first major innovation conceived by McKinley and Hanna was the very idea of a national campaign. Prior to 1896, most campaigns were carried out by state-level party organizations that did not extend beyond the borders of the given state. McKinley, however, established the Republican National Committee as his primary campaigning body and as a result, he was able to exercise a much stronger, centralized handle over his nationwide messaging and strategy.
The McKinley campaign also revolutionized electoral finance. Instead of the traditional “passing the hat” method or asking office seekers to pay up in exchange for future political appointments, McKinley and Hanna turned to business leaders for contributions. John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, for example, each donated $250,000—more than $6 million apiece today—that allowed the GOP to wildly outspend Bryan.
McKinley developed yet another tactic at the heart of modern campaigns: coalition building. He positioned his economic policy, the gold standard, as a path to prosperity in contrast to Bryan’s “free silver” ideology. By educating voters on his platform and explaining the merits of the gold standard, McKinley attracted an economic-oriented coalition of voters that consisted of wealthy businessmen, professionals, skilled laborers, and well-off farmers, which gave him strong bases of support in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast. By uniting the interests of these various social groups, McKinley all but guaranteed his victory.
Unsurprisingly, when Election Day came, McKinley crushed Bryan. The man from Ohio ended the night with 271 electoral votes to Bryan’s 176, and he enjoyed a victory in the popular vote by more than 500,000 ballots. McKinley comfortably swept the Northeast, West Coast, and Upper Midwest, with Bryan taking the sparsely populated South and Rocky Mountain states.
However, the real legacy of the 1896 Presidential Election isn’t McKinley’s landslide—it’s the set of tools and tactics that can be found at the heart of campaigns today. Although the modern era has provided us with a set of techniques that McKinley could have never imagined, candidates today still rely on external fundraising as the basis for their campaigns. They still work to build nationwide campaigns and engage broad coalitions of voters to help propel them into office. So while the distance of more than a century may divide the age of McKinley from the present, his ideas are still alive and well.