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The 1896 United States presidential election was the 28th quadrennial presidential election, held on Tuesday, November 3, 1896. Former Governor William McKinley, the Republican nominee, defeated former Representative William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic nominee. The 1896 campaign, which took place during an economic depression known as the Panic of 1893, was a political realignment that ended the old Third Party System and began the Fourth Party System.
447 members of the Electoral College
224 electoral votes needed to win
|79.6% 3.8 pp
Presidential election results map. Red denotes those won by McKinley/Hobart, blue denotes states won by Bryan/Sewall and the Democratic/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 (which would have been his third overall), leaving the Democratic nomination open. An attorney and former congressman, Bryan galvanized support with his Cross of Gold speech, which called for 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 at 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, prosperous farmers, and skilled factory workers turned off by Bryan's agrarian policies were heavily represented. He 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. His moralistic rhetoric and crusade for inflation (to be generated by the institution of bimetallism) alienated conservatives. McKinley became the first Republican to ever carry Kentucky in a presidential election, and Bryan the first Democrat to ever carry Nebraska in a presidential election.
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 and Palmer just under 1%. 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 party until the 1920s, and set the stage for Republican domination of the Fourth Party System.
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