Rum, Romanism, & Rebellion : The Making of a President 1884 by Mark Wahlgre Summers

rum-romanism-rebellion-making-president-1884-mark-wahlgren-summers-paperback-cover-artThe election of 1884 might not seem too different from an election of the late 20th Century or early 21st Century, but it may be the first one that may have its outcome determined by a gaffe. And not even a gaffe spoken by a candidate, but rather by a well-meaning supporter of one of the principals. But, there was a lot more to the 1884 election according to Mark Wahlgren Summers, a University of Kentucky history professor.

In a freewheeling, at times even irreverent, look back at the events shaping the first election of Grover Cleveland, Summers focuses more on the loser, James Blaine. Summers describes a political party system coming apart at the seams.

Republicans could not hold together their disparate parts, with factions favoring Prohibition or political reform often butting heads. The Democrats benefitted from the end of Reconstruction, which let former Confederates retake control of state governments and effectively end voting rights for blacks.

Blaine thought the nomination was his in 1880, but a deadlocked convention turned to dark horse Ohio Representative James Garfield. Garfield was assassinated early in his term and replaced by Chester Arthur, regarded as a political hack by most people, but was surprisingly effective. Arthur wanted to be nominated in his own right in 1884, even though he knew he was dying of kidney disease. The Republicans ended up nominating Blaine in 1884 accompanied by John Logan of Illinois as his running mate.

Blaine, nicknamed “the Plumed Knight”, was considered to be an attractive man who looked like the quintessential statesman. However, Blaine had numerous enemies among the Republicans, including President Arthur, so he was hard-pressed to get all the support and financial backing he needed.

The Democrats nominated New York Governor Grover Cleveland, who had developed a reputation as an honest politician, or as honest as you could expect from a politician in the Gilded Age. The Democrats nominated Thomas Hendricks for Vice President, who was trying to gain the office he nearly won in the controversial election of 1876. (Samuel Tilden, the loser in 1876 was considered the front runner for the nomination despite being extremely ill.)

Early in the campaign, Cleveland was hit hard by accusations that he had fathered an illegitimate child (which most people think he really did), although he took the line that he was taking care of a child that may have been fathered by a friend of his who was conveniently dead. The Democrats had turned up reports of marital infidelity by Blaine, but they opted not to retaliate with more sex scandals. The 1884 campaign was the last time until the time of Bill Clinton, where marital fidelity became a big issue in a presidential election. Summers believes that the two parties realized that making every campaign about morals issues was bound to be a disaster for both sides.

What were the issues of the day? There was the tariff (high tariffs were sought by the Republicans, while the Democrats mostly wanted them lowered), Prohibition (an issue that served mostly as a wedge issue between evangelical Protestants and Catholics), and the Civil War, which was still being fought in the political arena.

The Democrats had a solid base of 153 electoral votes in the South, so Blaine needed to sweep the three swing states in the North: New York, Indiana, and Ohio. Blaine didn’t do it as Cleveland’s narrow win in New York (by a little over 1,000 votes) was enough to tip the election to the Democrats.

One of the crucial moments in the election campaign happened on October 28, 1884 in New York City. In the last days of the campaign, Blaine made an appearance at a meeting of evangelical ministers. The chairman of this meeting was a well-respected minister in his seventies named Dr. Samuel Burchard. Burchard introduced Blaine to the crowd with this address:

We are Republican, and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and rebellion. We are loyal to our flag. We are loyal to you.

The reaction to “rum, Romanism, and rebellion” was not positive. Some in the crowd hissed. Reporters present at the meeting recognized it as a huge problem for Blaine because he was now identified with religious bigots. (Burchard claimed not to be anti-Catholic and said he just got caught up in alliteration.)

The news cycle of 1884 moved more slowly than today, and it took three days before Burchard’s words and Blaine’s seemingly tacit approval of them became a national story (the Democrats did have stenographers follow Blaine around waiting for a gaffe). In an election as close as 1884, it didn’t take much to keep just enough Republicans (some of whom were Catholic) away from the polls on Election Day.

Grover Cleveland would end up winning the popular vote in three straight elections, but only the electoral vote twice. He started as President because the country was tired of Republican rule. He left office in 1896 despised by his own party.

Blaine would go on to serve as Secretary of State under Benjamin Harrison before succumbing to the same kidney disease (Bright’s disease) that killed his political rival, Chester Arthur. This book definitely makes you feel like 1884 was a very unusual election year. It was. Politics was heading out into an increasingly weirder form in America. And it was never going to get less weird again. blaine_harper

The Log-Cabin Campaign by Robert Gray Gunderson

log cabin campaignThe 1840 Presidential campaign has always gone down as one that introduced a new style of campaigning. One where a candidate would actively seek the office and give speeches. And, a campaign which would be more about personalities than issues. One would think that a pretty good book could be written about this campaign.

This 1957 book  by a University of Kentucky speech professor is not a good book. While it professes to be scholarly (it has footnotes!), the author uses a style of prose that makes him sound like a frat pledge from the 1980s. All the major figures are referred to by nicknames. Whig candidate William Henry Harrison has so many nicknames that you can lose track (the Hero of Tippecanoe, Old Tip, Tip, Cincinnatus, The County Clerk) of just who the author is referring to.

Van Buren’s party, the Democrats, are almost always called “Loco-Focos” after the name of the faction of the Democratic party that Van Buren came from. (The term refers to a name for matches, which some New York Democrats used to light candles at a meeting where Tammany Hall bosses had all other light sources turned off or closed.)

The book goes on and on about various Whig party powerbrokers (in particular Thurlow Weed) and how they raised money or found stump speakers (such as Abraham Lincoln) to help Harrison’s campaign. But the book is mostly just a series of anecdotes strung together with some old timey speak tossed in.

Just what Harrison stood for was never clear. But, the Whigs were never big on details. They just wanted to be elected. That, and have a national bank. Other than that, they were mostly just hoping that Andrew Jackson, or his designated successor, Van Buren, would be embarrassed.

If there is anything interesting to be gleaned from this book, it’s mostly just some trivia about William Henry Harrison. For example, did you know that at the time of the election, Harrison’s job was Clerk of the County Courts (hence the nickname above) in Sandusky County, Ohio? He had been out of work for a while.

Did you know that Martin Van Buren’s Vice President, Richard Mentor Johnson, was essentially dumped from the ticket because Southerners seemed to dislike the fact that he was living with one of his slaves in a marital situation. (That was only socially acceptable at the time if you forced yourself on the slave, instead of seeking consent. O America, you never fail to be so hypocritical. Nevertheless, Johnson still received the electoral votes for Vice President in 1840.)

And in 1840, Whig rallies tend to consist of people rolling giant canvas balls with the name of supporters written on them. The idea was to “get the ball rolling for Tip.” It was also to make fun of Missouri Democratic Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who had given a speech in 1837, leading to the reversal of the Senate’s censure of Andrew Jackson.

“And now, sir, I finish the task which three years ago I imposed upon myself. Solitary and alone, and amid the jeers and taunts of my opponents I put this ball in motion.”

Harrison outpolled Van Buren by 126,000 votes. That wouldn’t amount to much today, but in 1840, that was good enough for a 6 point win. The Electoral vote was even more exaggerated with Harrison earning 234 votes to Van Buren’s 60. (Johnson lost 12 electoral votes for Vice President to other Southerners, including future President James Polk.) Van Buren had little chance of winning after the nation suffered a severe economic downturn in 1837. Credit was extraordinarily tight, and the public had soured on the Democrats having a monopoly on power pretty much since 1801.

Ultimately, Harrison has gone down in history mostly because he died after just a little bit more than a month after his inauguration. It was popularly believed that he contracted pneumonia after delivering a lengthy inaugural address in cold weather, but it seems more likely that he died of complications from being 68, being stressed out, and drinking Washington D.C.’s poor water. Vice President John Tyler succeeded him and turned out to hold none of Harrison’s (or the Whig Party’s) positions on just about anything. And nobody was happy for four years.

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Making of the President, 1964 by Theodore H. White

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter winning a Pulitzer Prize with his groundbreaking, dramatic, psychologically intense depiction of the 1960 presidential campaign, Theodore White tried it again in 1964. But, this election lacked the drama of 1960 (most elections have) and instead, White came up with a somewhat confused narrative that paints the winning candidate, Lyndon Johnson, as both a saint and sinner, and the loser, Barry Goldwater, as a man with crazed followers with only a passing grip on reality.

White’s book was published in 1965 and it came out before the United States started to come apart at the seams because of the Vietnam War and race relations, taking down Johnson’s presidency. Goldwater, who is presented as one of the least mainstream candidates ever, could have become the Conservative movement’s icon, if only the people of California hadn’t elected Ronald Reagan as governor in 1966, changing the course of American politics.

The book opens with the assassination of Kennedy and the reactions to it by Johnson, the Cabinet, and the leading Republican contenders of the era: Goldwater, Nelson Rockefeller, and Richard Nixon. White, who had authored a long, laudatory piece for Life Magazine on the request of Jacqueline Kennedy, almost wants you to get on a plane to ask the Pope to make Kennedy a saint.

Fortunately, the rhetoric dies down a bit. Most of the book is dedicated to the Republican campaign, which was the only contested one as Johnson opted to run in his own right.

There were just 16 state primaries in 1964 (along with one for the District of Columbia for the first time). Then, as now, New Hampshire started things off. Ambassador to Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge won that primary, mostly because of name recognition from his time as a Massachusetts senator. Goldwater and Rockefeller decided to duke it out in the last two major primaries: Oregon and California.

Rockefeller won in Oregon, but Goldwater won decisively in California. Goldwater was hurt by a recent divorce and, even worse, by fathering a child from his second wife during the campaign. (Two years later, the divorced and remarried Reagan would be elected governor of California.) Goldwater was then able to out organize Rockefeller in the state caucuses to sew up the nomination.

Before the convention, Pennsylvania governor William Scranton tried to enter the race, hoping for a draft from liberal Republican delegates. Scranton planned to make an appearance at a governors’ conference in Cleveland with Dwight Eisenhower, but the former President would not make a public appearance with Scranton, whose candidacy quickly died.

The Republican Convention in San Francisco turned out to be a contentious affair. Goldwater supporters openly heckled and booed Rockefeller when he addressed the delegates. The Republican Party, long controlled by Eastern financial interests, was now in the hands of a much different type of Republican. These Republicans wanted smaller government. They wanted a strong defense. They wanted law and order. The Republican power base had now shifted to the west and to the south. (Representative William Miller of New York was Goldwater’s running mate.)

Goldwater famously said during his acceptance speech,

 I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

Johnson’s biggest problem during his campaign was finding a running mate. Some assumed that Robert Kennedy would be a logical and/or sentimental choice. But, the two men never got along (a bit of an understatement) and Johnson turned to two Minnesota Senators: Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy. Since Humphrey had helped passed the Civil Rights Bill earlier in 1964, Johnson owed him the favor. Ahh, but how would have things been different if McCarthy had won the job.

Goldwater had many obstacles to overcome in the election. In one early campaign speech, he spoke about giving NATO “commanders” the option to use nuclear weapons on their own accord. This was interpreted as meaning that Goldwater wanted to remove command and control of nuclear weapons from the White House and entrust them to potentially unknown generals. The term “commanders” actually referred to the head of NATO, but the damage was done. Goldwater was painted as a guy who wanted to nuke everything. (You can find many other ads here.)

Johnson and the Democrats also claimed that Goldwater wished to make Social Security a voluntary system, something which Goldwater hadn’t quite staked out. But, it was the start of a Democratic tradition of blaming Republican candidates for wanting to gut Social Security. (50 years later, it’s still around. And the accusations still get made.)

Goldwater also voted against the Civil Rights Bill, although he said he did so on Constitutional grounds. Goldwater refused to play his version of the race card against Johnson by playing to the fears of white Americans, but he had those voters sewn up already.

White pointed out that Johnson ran as an almost nonpartisan, apolitical candidate who would unite the country. This was in spite of the fact that Johnson was one of the most partisan politicians ever elected President.

The book hints at future problems. There is a chapter on “the Negro Revolution” as well as some discussion about the foreign policy problems facing the country, namely in Southeast Asia. And those situations ended up playing out even worse than White feared. (White briefly discusses one of the first big protests of the time, the 1964 Free Speech movement at UC Berkeley. But, he misses the point and claims that Berkeley students were hypocritical because they didn’t pass a free housing measure. White was likely not aware that the vast majority of students were registered to vote outside of the Berkeley city limits. Or they couldn’t vote because they weren’t 21. The permanent residents of Berkeley in 1964 were still fairly conservative.)

The election was not close. Johnson took home 61.1% of the popular vote, a record at the time. He won 446 electoral votes to 52 for Goldwater, who won five states in the Deep South as well as Arizona.

Johnson came back to the White House figuring that he would be the most popular President since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. He could only dream of that.

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A Catholic Runs for President: The Campaign of 1928 by Edmund A. Moore

catholicrunsforpresidentThe Presidential election of 1928 was not a close one. Yet, it was memorable for the reason that the losing Democratic candidate, New York Governor Al Smith, was the first Catholic to be nominated for the Presidency by a major party. Although Smith’s religion was not the main reason he lost, it certainly didn’t help. And it gave Smith’s opponents, who distrusted him for his stance on the repeal of Prohibition and for being from New York City, even more ammunition to use against him.

In 1956, a political scientist named Edmund A. Moore looked back to 1928 and examined the election strictly in terms of Smith’s religion. It’s not a particularly relevant book to us today since: 1) a Catholic, John F. Kennedy, would be elected President in 1960, 2) there have been subsequent Catholic nominees for the Presidency and Vice-Presidency (John Kerry in 2004, Geraldine Ferraro as Vice President in 1984, and current Vice President Joe Biden), 3) Catholics appear all over the political spectrum now (Dennis Kucinich and Rick Santorum were both Catholic candidates in 2012.) and 4) there was a major party Mormon nominee in Mitt Romney and the U.S. was practically in a state of war against that religion during the 19th Century. America has come a long way in hating religion and we save our dumbest and most vile invective for Islam.

When we last saw Smith in 1924, his delegates at the Democratic Convention in New York successfully blocked the nomination of William McAdoo and forced the Democrats into nominating a compromise candidate, John W. Davis, who … did not win.

In 1928 Smith was the presumptive nominee. Anti-Smith forces decided that the best way to stop the Catholic “wet” governor of New York was to find a “dry” Catholic. Montana senator Thomas Walsh took a few delegates to the convention in Houston, but it was not nearly enough to stop Smith’s momentum. The Democrats finished their business in three days. Arkansas Senator Joseph Robinson was the Vice Presidential Nominee.

The Republicans were running the very popular Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who was generally considered to be the brains behind the very popular Calvin Coolidge. Senator Charles Curtis of Kansas was nominated for Vice President.

In 1928, American Catholics were a scary bunch to many for a variety of reasons, although not many of them made a lot of sense. There was a general fear of people who tended to live in big cities (as Smith did). There was a widely-held belief that a Catholic president would be more obedient to the Pope than to the American people.

Smith tried to react to the religious arguments against him, but he never could find the right approach. The problem facing him was that some of the arguments were so outlandish (like turning the White House over to the Pope) that it was hard to argue against something so outlandish without sounding foolish. Magazines like The Atlantic Monthly had long articles with discussions of Smith’s “Catholic problem.” 

Another problem Smith faced was that with the focus on his religion as well as his opposition to Prohibition, nobody really knew what Smith’s positions on other matters were. Also, because Smith sounded “ethnic”, Republican opponents reveled in pointing out his lack of education and dearth of foreign policy experience as compared to the Stanford-educated and world renowned Hoover. (This book doesn’t discuss Smith’s positions on any matter in any depth.)

With the American economy booming, Smith faced an uphill battle in 1928. But, with Southern Democrats fearful of a Catholic because he was, for lack of a better word, different, Smith’s base of support was gone. Hoover routed Smith by a 444-87 margin in the electoral vote and by a 58%-40% margin in the popular vote. Hoover was able to pick off the Southern states of Texas, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Smith even lost his home state of New York. The only states that Smith won were states in the Deep South with almost no Republican voters as well as two narrow wins in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Smith was hoping that by running in 1928, he would still be popular among Democrats and be considered a top candidate for 1932. That idea had one problem that Smith didn’t foresee. With Smith running for President, the Democrats found a new man to run for New York Governor. His name was Franklin D. Roosevelt, a longtime Smith ally. When 1932 rolled around, the two men were no longer allies. They were competitors.

American politics has never been pretty. Mud has been thrown since the Election of 1796. My impression from this book is that it was clear that there was a significant part of America that didn’t want a candidate like Al Smith to win. His Catholicism was just one facet of why people feared him. The fact that he was from a city, and not just any city, but THE BIGGEST CITY still left a good chunk of America afraid. If Smith hadn’t been Catholic, there would have been some other reason to go after his character.

The Election of 1928 showed that America was, for the most part, full of shallow, fearful bigots who were easily manipulated by more powerful forces. Would Al Smith been a good President? Probably not. After the election, Smith went to work for those same big business concerns that he campaigned against. The losers were all the people who were manipulated into believing the worst things about a large part of the American population. Or do the American people just prefer to be told whom to hate?

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The 103rd Ballot by Robert K. Murray

If one were able to go back in time to 1924, most people would be stunned by a lot of things. Communications that seemed glacial in pace, medical care that wouldn’t be very good, and also that the United States was dominated by people who believed that the country should be run by people who were white, who didn’t drink any alcohol, and, for good measure, had only a passing acquaintance with science.

For the most part, the America of 1924 was an unpleasant place for those who were not part of the ruling class. The conflict between all of the disparate parts of American life at the time came to a head in the disastrous Democratic convention of 1924.

Robert K. Murray’s book from 1976 has a straightforward title about how long it took for the Democrats to nominate a candidate for President in 1924. It took the Democrats 16 days, packed into a sweltering Madison Square Garden in New York, to finally nominate someone to go be a sacrificial lamb running against incumbent Calvin Coolidge, who had quickly gained in popularity as the American economy began to flourish. Murray’s book is a great read, rich with detail, and surprisingly not too bogged down with details. There is a good feel for the time period, although you do leave the book with the feeling that everyone in New York in 1924 thought that everyone from outside of New York was a stupid hick and beneath them. Which is to say, New York is still the same.

The Democrats had a lot of problems in 1924, but perhaps their biggest was that a large chunk of their support in 1924 came from the Ku Klux Klan. In the 1920s, the Klan had developed a system where people could easily join up. Becoming a Klan member didn’t mean that you were in favor of burning crosses and lynching African-Americans. It just meant that you liked a country that was white, Protestant, and free of immigrants (except of course for the immigrants that your family came from, they were OK). Estimates of Klan membership in the 1920s ranged from 3 to 8 MILLION people. Some state governments, such as Indiana’s, were essentially run by the Klan.

Prohibition was the other big wedge issue for the Democrats. The party was split between rural conservatives who supported it and urban moderates and progressives who found the idea intolerable.

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The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the Election of 1948 by Zachary Karabell

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Nice Stache!

Whenever a candidate in any type of election is trailing in the polls before Election Day, the surprise result of the 1948 Presidential Election is referenced. However, the events of 1948 are unlikely ever to replicated today. Zachary Karabell’s book about the election, written back in 2000, shows how changes in the way candidates communicate the public make it almost impossible for anyone to pull off a comeback like Harry Truman did.

Harry Truman’s first term in office was far from smooth as he had to steer a postwar economy while working with a Republican majority in Congress. The Republicans, out of office since 1933, were determined to pass legislation to frustrate the core constituency of the Democrats, organized labor, with the Taft-Hartley Act, which placed numerous restrictions on union organizing and the right to strike. It went into law after Congress overrode a Truman veto.

(Most of the links in this piece will take you to YouTube videos of newsreels.)

The Republicans were ready to reclaim the White House. They had three main candidates: New York Governor Thomas Dewey, who had lost to Roosevelt in 1944; Harold Stassen, former Governor of Minnesota and current President of the University of Pennsylvania; and Senator Robert Taft of Ohio. Taft controlled the conservative wing of the party with Dewey and Stassen fighting for supremacy among the moderate and liberal wings. During the primary season (which was much briefer in 1948 than it is today), Stassen was running ahead of Dewey in most contests. Dewey chose the Oregon primary to show his primacy over Stassen. He campaigned all over the state. The big issue was Stassen’s idea of abolishing the Communist Party in the United States. Dewey strongly opposed it because, while he abhorred Communism (we will find out that not all candidates for office in 1948 did), he believed it was unconstitutional for the country to prohibit any form of political thought. Dewey’s viewpoint prevailed and he won a clear victory in Oregon. With the momentum from that election, Dewey was able to overcome Taft’s opposition (he picked up delegates mostly through state party caucuses and conventions) in the convention in Philadelphia to win the nomination on the first ballot. California governor Earl Warren was chosen for the second slot.

Truman had more problems. His Commerce Secretary, Henry Wallace, gave a speech in New York in 1946 where he strongly opposed Truman’s policy of strongly confronting Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe. Wallace thought that the Soviet Union and the U.S. should just be friends and agree never to fight and everything would be fine. Truman fired Wallace. Wallace, in turn, went on to form his own party on the left, which he called the Progressives. He would run alongside Idaho Senator Glen Taylor. Yes, in 1948, there were far left candidates from Idaho.

Truman also had problems on his right. Truman had formed a commission to study civil rights, which immediately raised the ire of Southerners, who feared Federal involvement in sacred Southern matters, such as oppressing African-American voters and preventing lynching from becoming a crime. Several Southern states planned to bolt the party if a civil rights plank was added to the platform.

Some Democrats thought that Dwight Eisenhower, then the President of Columbia, would make a great candidate and there was a plan to draft him. But, Eisenhower declined. Besides, nobody knew if he was a Republican or Democrat.

In the end, Truman was nominated. 35 Southern delegates bolted the convention in protest of a civil rights plank. They went on to form the States Rights Party, although they were more popularly known as the Dixiecrats. They ended up nominating Strom Thurmond of South Carolina for President and Fielding Wright of Mississippi for Vice President. Truman needed a running mate and settled on Kentucky senator Alben Barkley, who had delivered a rousing speech to the convention.

When it came time to campaign, the polls showed Dewey with a strong lead. However, the Democrats back in 1947 had set up a strategy where they thought Truman could win. They would work hard to shore up labor’s support and then hammer Dewey and the Republicans on populist issues. They figured that the election would be close, but the Democrats were in a much stronger position in the electoral vote, even with some defections in the South.

Dewey’s campaign was rather restrained. He and his campaign team believed that they had a safe lead and wanted to act statesmanlike. Dewey gave bland speeches that avoided promises. Dewey did not attack Truman much, certainly not with the same vigor he used going after Roosevelt in 1944.

Truman went on the attack as soon as he gave his acceptance speech. During that speech, Truman said he would call the 80th Congress, whom he dubbed “The Do Nothing Congress”, into special session to pass a package of bills that would include minimum wage laws, Federal health insurance, and housing. (Nothing of consequence passed during the session.)

1948 was the last Presidential election before television coverage became widespread (although TV did exist). This worked to Truman’s advantage as he could travel the country in his special train and give speeches tailored to whatever crowd he encountered. Some speeches were good, some were not, but there was not constant scrutiny on everything he said. Truman relentlessly hammered home a populist message, proclaiming the Democrats as the party of the working man (and woman) who would stand up for them against the nefarious forces of Wall Street.

Wallace’s campaign never went anywhere. Few American voters were interested in a campaign that was based on defusing world tensions by just agreeing to be nice. Wallace took his campaign to the South and was pelted with eggs at many stops. He seemed to enjoy the role of martyr, according to Karabell.

Thurmond and the Dixiecrats hoped to win enough states to throw the election into the House, but could not make any gains past four core states: Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina. In those states, Thurmond appeared on the ballot as the official Democratic party nominee instead of Truman. Those would be the only states Thurmond would win with his underfunded campaign.

One warning sign that the Republicans missed out on was polling data showing that Congressional races throughout the country were trending Democratic. However, Dewey and his advisors were unconcerned. A few Republican donors advised Dewey to go on the attack in the closing weeks, but that did not happen.

Election Day was November 2. Dewey went to bed before the outcome was settled. Truman stayed up a little longer. When the results came in, Truman had won. And by a healthy margin (49% to 45% with Thurmond and Wallace splitting up the rest) at the polls. The electoral vote had an ever bigger disparity: 303 for Truman, 189 for Dewey, and 39 for Thurmond. While Dewey had reclaimed New York for the Republicans, Truman cleaned up in the Midwest and Plains. One important issue in the campaign that the Republicans had not realized would come back to bite them was the elimination of Federal financial support for grain storage. Since nearly every farmer grew more wheat and corn than could be sold at the time of harvest, much of it needed to be stored in grain elevators. But storage cost money. With no money for them, farmers faced huge financial losses. Truman used this issue to show how Republicans had no interest in protecting the middle and lower class.

Karabell asserts that in the long run, candidates like Dewey would be the likely winners of presidential campaigns. It was much easier in the television era to just look like a good candidate and not say too much to anger either side. A campaign like Truman’s, which was extremely nasty, is off-putting to voters of today. (Although that may not be as true as much now as the Democrats and Republicans are starting to polarize more.) 1948 was supposed to be the first election when truly scientific polling was supposed to tell people who was going to win. And while the polls of 1948 were far better than the one in 1936 that predicted an Alf Landon win over Roosevelt, they were still new. They were not perfect. They are not perfect today, but they are still better. Don’t expect, I wouldn’t expect another upset like 1948 to happen again. Then again, in 1995, I told someone that no one would ever be elected President without winning the popular vote. Dewey-Defeats-Truman

Realigning America: McKinley, Bryan, and the Remarkable Election of 1896 (with bonus 1900 coverage!)

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Just because you’re a Populist, that doesn’t make you popular

Picture a time in American history when Presidential elections produced enormous turnouts, people debated the issues intently, and felt that their identity was closely tied to their party affiliation. A time when one of the major party candidates went from being virtually unknown a few months before the party convention to becoming the party nominee. When one of the nominees was so popular that hundreds of thousands of people came to his home to visit him. This time was 1896. And, today, most history students get shuffled through it as quickly as possible because the issues involved are often too esoteric or too removed from today’s problems, that people cannot identify with them.

In this book by Southern Methodist University professor R. Hal Williams, as part of the University Press of Kansas series on American Presidential Elections, the 1896 election is presented as the one that marked a major change in the way Americans treated Presidential elections. Although the calendar did not say it was the 20th Century, the 1896 election is, in many respects, the first “modern” Presidential election.

The lead up to the 1896 election was extraordinarily turbulent, and, for the most part, mostly ignored today. Starting in 1876, elections became close affairs in the United States. Republicans eked out wins in 1876 and 1880. The Democrats won the White House in 1884 under Grover Cleveland, but lost it in 1888 back to the Republicans and Benjamin Harrison despite Cleveland winning more popular votes.

The Republicans of this era liked to spend money. They liked to raise revenue and in 1890, President Harrison signed into law a major increase in tariff duties called the McKinley Tariff, named for the Ohio Congressman who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee. The Democrats complained about the enormous spending done by the Republicans. They derisively referred to the “Billion Dollar Congress” because they Federal budget had finally topped that mark.

In the 1890 midterm elections, the House Republicans were nearly wiped out at the polls. They lost 93 seats, the most ever. The Democrats picked up 86 of them, with a third party, the Populists, a Western-based movement that opposed the concentration of capital in Eastern banks, picking up the balance. McKinley lost his seat. The voters of Nebraska’s first district chose a 30-year old named Williams Jennings Bryan.

In 1892, Cleveland returned to the White House (while McKinley was elected governor of Ohio), avenging his defeat to Harrison. However, events went bad for Cleveland almost immediately. The nation’s gold reserves were dwindling, creating turmoil in the financial markets. Where was the gold going? It was going overseas.

At the time of Cleveland’s second inauguration, you could take a certificate for a certain amount of silver and have it exchanged for a fixed rate of gold. (About 16 oz of silver for 1 oz of gold). The problem was that gold was worth much more than silver than the exchange rate the Treasury offered. And nearly every other country in the world would not accept deposits in silver because there was too much of it.

Almost immediately after the March 4 inauguration, Cleveland was facing a full-fledged financial panic as credit was squeezed. Cleveland asked Congress to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890. When this happened, Western Democrats, like Bryan, felt betrayed by Cleveland. While the U.S. economy did not collapse, it certainly did not get better. Unemployment went up.

In the 1894 elections, the Republicans broke the four-year old record for biggest turnaround in an election. They picked up 130 seats in the House, putting Thomas Reed of Maine into the Speakership.

By the time of the 1896 election, the Republicans were fairly sure that they would win back the White House. But whom would they choose? McKinley was considered one of the leading contenders. He was the governor of a swing state (Ohio), he was a Civil War vet (he was called Major McKinley in the press), and he had the substantial financial backing of Mark Hanna, one of the wealthiest men in Ohio.

Reed tried to present himself as a candidate, but he came from a small state (Maine), and he was considered too abrasive to appeal to a national electorate. Pennsylvania senator Matthew Quay also made a play for the nomination.

When the Republicans convened in St. Louis, it didn’t take them long, just one ballot, to nominate McKinley, whom most tabbed as an easy winner in November. Garret Hobart, a New Jersey business magnate, was nominated for Vice President.

The Democrats were not in a great position. All of the leading contenders for the nomination were running against the policies of the incumbent President, who happened to be in their party.

The front-runner was Missouri Senator Richard Bland, who was such a big advocate of restoring the silver standard, that he was commonly referred to as “Silver Dick.” That name wasn’t as funny in 1896 as it is now, but it was likely funny enough that Bland didn’t get the nomination.

Instead, William Jennings Bryan, a 36-year old Representative from Nebraska, got the nomination? How did this happen? There were two reasons: 1) Bryan gave one of the most convincing speeches in American political history: the Cross of Gold Speech. The delegates may have nominated Bryan right after he gave the speech if not for a hasty adjournment and 2) the Democrats didn’t have many other good choices. The Democrats nominated Arthur Sewall, a wealthy lumberman from Maine, as Vice President.

So, the 1896 election matched up a Republican governor who looked like Presidential, fought for the Union, and stood for a sound economy. The Democrats nominated someone who was too young to remember the Civil War and backed a potentially inflationary economic scheme. As it turned out, Americans loved the debate.

Bryan was on the campaign trail constantly. He traveled by train all over the nation, but he targeted states that he felt were crucial to his chances for victory. It was not common to do that at this time, but it was not unheard of.

McKinley knew that if he tried to match Bryan speech for speech across the country that he would lose. He knew he held the upper hand in the election and he had no need to make himself look like he had to work as hard as Bryan to get elected. So, Hanna, McKinley’s money man, had trains full of eager Republican voters brought to Ohio, where McKinley would address them from his front porch. It was estimated that nearly 750,000 came to hear McKinley speak over the course of the campaign. The heads of the visiting delegations were given questions by McKinley to ask ahead of time.

The Republicans also had a sophisticated direct mail campaign, flooding the mail boxes of likely Republican voters with materials printed in a variety of languages. McKinley and the Republicans may not have been able to out talk Bryan, but they could definitely outspend him and out organize him.

Complicating matters for Bryan was the presence of a third party, the Populists. They had made a difference in the 1892 election. However, in 1896, they found that their platform, with its reliance on silver, had been co-opted by Bryan and the Democrats. The Populists held a convention of their own and nominated Bryan as their candidate, but refused to nominate Sewell. Instead, they substituted Thomas Watson of Georgia. This left Bryan in the uncomfortable position of having the support of a third party, but not the support of his running mate, which could prove to complicate Electoral College matters. In some states, the Byran-Sewell tickets and Bryan-Watson tickets would run separately, making it harder for Bryan to win. (A group of conservative Democrats favoring the gold standard also nominated a ticket, but it received little support.)

Election Day 1896 was a big day. The turnout was massive. In Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, and Ohio, the turnout was nearly 95% of the electorate (which was almost all white males at the time.) In New York City, newspapers used “magic lanterns” (early versions of slide projectors) to show a map of the United States with each state colored in to show which candidate had won there. (The book does not have examples of what colors were used.)

McKinley won with 51% of the vote and 271 electoral votes to Bryan’s 47% and 176 electoral votes. Bryan failed to win any state out of the Democratic South and the Populist West. McKinley managed to pull in Oregon and California and also the border states of West Virginia and Kentucky.

Why was the turnout so big? Williams makes the point that at this time, Americans tended to identify themselves very closely with political parties. Being a Republican or Democrat made you who you were. Politics was a unifying force in communities. People enjoyed elections, some states holding several per year.

Most people would vote a straight ticket and show up at the polls with a ballot that would distinctly indicate whom they were voting for, although by 1896, the Australian ballot (which actually started in Australia), changed matters. This style of ballot listed all the candidates on the ballot from all the parties. Voters would then indicate whom they wanted. And they would do this secretly.

McKinley’s victory in 1896 was not hard to predict. The Republicans of this era were the only party that was actually trying to do things. The Democrats of this era were best known for only wanting to oppose what the Republicans did, such as expanding civil rights. Bryan attempted to change the Democrats from being a conservative party that mainly said no into a party that appealed to the Populist movement of the West. The book cover shows a cartoon of Bryan as a snake swallowing the Democratic Party whole, which would ultimately be their undoing.

The economy greatly improved during McKinley’s first term, partly because of natural economic cycles and also because gold became more plentiful in the world, making the return to the gold standard far less risky. In 1899, Vice President Garret Hobart died.

In 1900, the Republicans renominated McKinley. The young governor of New York, Theodore Roosevelt, a hero of the Spanish-American War, was nominated as Vice President. The Democrats, lacking anyone better to run, nominated Bryan again, this time with former Vice President Adlai Stevenson as his running mate. McKinley won again, by a slightly larger margin.

American political involvement would never be as great as it was during this time. The Australian ballot allowed people more freedom to choose the candidate they liked instead of the party they liked. People began to identify less with their political party as they realized that their parties didn’t do much for them.

We no longer live in a world where the hottest political issue is bimetallism. Candidates do not espouse the quantity of money theory (as Bryan did) to stimulate the economy. But these were the issues of 1896. Ultimately, the issues were still ones that people argue about today: employment, debt, and the standard of living. The framework of the debate was different than it was today. But, people cared. Or at least they were told to care. Do we care as much today?

1896 result