David R. Mayhew is Sterling Professor of Political Science emeritus at Yale University.
Who now takes note of President William McKinley? These days, his name is being removed from that Alaska mountain.
Yet McKinley was a major figure of considerable talent. He won the presidency twice. He swerved the Republican Party toward class harmony and ethnic inclusiveness. He took on his party’s nativist faction by reaching out to Roman Catholics and immigrants. Pitching protectionism and the gold standard, he opened an era of Republican rule marked by economic prosperity and, among other things, the Spanish-American War. That Republican era began with his election in 1896. Bolstered by Theodore Roosevelt’s charisma after McKinley was assassinated in 1901, it lasted until the elections of 1910 and 1912, when voters shifted toward progressive reform.
The 1896 election stands out for another reason. Democrats abandoned their traditional program in running the pro-silver economic reformer William Jennings Bryan, who famously lost. He lost again in 1900 and in 1908.
For Karl Rove, a century later, the 1896 election with McKinley’s victory was a great success story and has served as a kind of model. As George W. Bush’s campaign manager in 2000 and in 2004, Rove reflected publicly on that past. Could we have another Republican era like that? What issues and planning could make that kind of success possible? The 1896 election might offer a kind of instruction book.
In telling the story of the 1896 election, Rove has written a campaign expert’s book. “The Triumph of William McKinley” takes us through the setting, the strategies, the party conventions, the events and the week-by-week, state-by-state activities of the candidates seeking nomination and then election. It is a good, brisk read. Rove relies on newspaper coverage from the 1890s and has a sure touch. He casts a professional eye: He judges, for example, that Bryan didn’t spend his campaign time all that well. He spent too much time in New York, a sure loss, and in Southern states that were hard to lose.
On the way to victory, Rove relates, McKinley racked up some notable support beyond his obvious business base. The largest railway unions endorsed him. The Roman Catholic archbishop of St. Paul backed him, seeing “lawlessness and anarchy” in the Democratic platform.
Rove offers eight reasons for McKinley’s win. The candidate campaigned on big issues — the tariff and the currency. He hit the opposing side’s silver issue head-on. He broadened the party’s demographic appeal. He expanded the playing field by putting resources into the border states. He ran as an outsider, against his party’s Eastern bosses. He presented himself as a candidate of change. He projected the image of a unifier. And he ran a first-rate campaign — a skilled organization, lots of money, 250 million pieces of literature and so on. Not least, McKinley was a grade-A candidate. Rove plays down the role of McKinley’s campaign manager, Mark Hanna, often seen as the election’s backstage Machiavelli. In Rove’s assessment, McKinley himself was the mastermind of it all. He weaves a plausible case for that judgment.
Campaign experts tend to dwell on campaigns as the drivers of election outcomes. Political scientists like me tend to lay the stress on underlying structural factors. In 1896, those factors played an important part. The economy had been terrible for four years — Americans were grappling with the country’s worst depression to date. And it came under the tenure of the Democrats and Grover Cleveland. The party flailed about, repudiated Cleveland and reached for a dramatically new policy tonic in the Bryan cause in 1896. But still, the Democrats were the incumbent party, and as such, they owned the depression.
For that reason, the 1896 election was probably the Republicans’ to lose. The Democrats’ plight is seen in the shift in the House. In the 1892 election, the Democrats won 43 seats to the Republicans’ 35 in the volatile Midwestern states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. But in the 1894 midterms, after the economy collapsed, the Republicans surged in those states to a 74 to 4 edge, and they maintained their sharp advantage at 61 to 17 in 1896. Not surprisingly, the Republican platform of 1896 savaged the Democrats for ruining the economy. In the end, the election was close but not knife-edge close. McKinley ran 5.3 percentage points ahead in the popular vote. In the pivotal Electoral College state of Ohio, he edged out his opponent by 5.1 points.
For us today, looking back at 1896, nothing jumps out more than the strangeness of the election map. McKinley won the East and West coasts and the Rust Belt. Bryan won the South, the plains and the mountain states. In the 21st century, we have turned all that upside down. In party terms, only six states voted the same way in 1896 as in 2004 — the Republicans’ most recent presidential victory. Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, North Dakota and Ohio voted Republican both times. Washington state voted Democratic both times. In 1896, little is more striking than the Republican performance in the high-growth coal-and-steel region of the Great Lakes, rich in immigrants and blue-collar workers. In a geographic string, the Republicans carried the counties containing Duluth, Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Erie and Buffalo. Bryan did well with farmers, but he proved helpless in the industrial sector of the economy, where, among other things, a high tariff had appeal.
Of the takeaways from Rove’s book, I would emphasize his story of McKinley’s outreach to immigrants and non-Protestant ethnic groups. The Republicans have often had a problem reaching out. McKinley, like Abraham Lincoln, an earlier builder of the party, took pains to appeal to immigrant ethnic groups. In the 1890s, immigrants from Europe were pouring in. Also, the party was losing its African American vote in the South through disenfranchisement. The Republicans had to do something. They adapted strategically, as the parties ordinarily do. They broadened their base. That is what Bush and Rove did a century later in appealing to Hispanic voters.
By Karl Rove
Simon & Schuster. 482 pp. $32.50