#25: William McKinley: The Front Porch Campaign

The presidential campaign of William McKinley vs. William Jennings Bryan in 1896 is legendary and was close, even by Bush V. Gore standards. McKinley won most of the delegates, but only captured 51% of the vote.

McKinley was seen as a sort of honest, good government type candidate. His positions were fairly moderate on many of the great issues of the day such as the gold standard and foreign intervention and were fairly progressive on other issues such as race or ethnic relations. He wasn't known as a great speech maker or a person that could electrify crowds, putting him at a disadvantage to William Jennings Bryan who was known as one of the best orators of his day, in the same league as JFK or FDR would have been during their time.

The fact that McKinley was sort of a Nixon and Bryan was a JFK in terms of oratory flourish put him at a disadvantage and led him to remark "I might just as well set up a trapeze on my front lawn and compete with some professional athlete as go out speaking against Bryan. I have to think when I speak."

The crazy thing is that he actually did wage a campaign from his front porch. Bryan had the South and the West locked up going into the race because of the influence of the Democratic party there and spent most of the campaign traveling around the midwest and northeast. McKinley however, brought the voters to him.

Working with the railroads who supported his campaign, he organized delegations from throughout the country to arrive at his home in Canton, Ohio. After getting off the train, the delegations would be accompanied by marching bands for the walk to McKinley's home and would pass under banners with his portrait. Once at the home, McKinley would greet them from his porch and would answer prepared questions that a spokesman for the delegation would ask. Since the delegations were pre-screened and their travel was subsidized by the campaign, the front porch speeches had a "town hall" feel to them. This was a brilliant strategy since McKinley could increase the number of supporters he spoke to as there was no travel time required and the pre-planned nature of the event allowed him to control his image and present himself in the most favorable light.

Much of Bryan's time was taken up from the travel required and he would occasionally venture into unfriendly venues where he would be forced to defend rather than promote his positions.

McKinley's campaign staff laid down the ground work for the modern presidential campaign, while their approach wasn't great for citizens seeking honest answers to candidate's stances on the issues, their influence on shaping the approach to American elections cannot be denied.

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