The rematch election in 1900 between “Bills” – William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan – was not an unusual occurrence.
There have been a few “rematch” Presidential elections. Adams & Jefferson in 1796 and 1800, where the office exchanged hands. In 1836 & 1840, Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison exchanged the office. In 1888 and 1892 Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland exchanged offices. (The last one was between Ike and Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956. Ike won both times.)
Growth of the Candidates:
William McKinley, Republican President of the United States, was 57 years old in 1900, still vigorous and in good health. And now, after a marked improvement in the general economy, and a quick and successful war with Spain, the President was looking more and more like a real statesman. He was likable and had proven his competence. He had no opposition winning renomination.
Some of the Democrats toyed with the idea of nominating the conservative 63-year-old Admiral George Dewey, recent hero of the lopsided Battle of Manila Bay, but Dewey had a case of political foot-in-mouth disease and withdrew. Thus William Jennings Bryan, who at 36 years old was the Democratic candidate in 1896, was renominated.
Now 40, Bryan had cemented his influence on the Democrats – and maintained his even stronger influence as a Populist, which by the turn of the century had become a solid third party, mostly representing midwestern farmers and small businessmen. Billy the Kid could crisscross the country making speeches if he wanted. He liked that. William the Elder could sit back and be “presidential.” He liked that.
The VEEP Contest
It would be a Vice Presidential candidate who caused the stir this time around.
Garret Hobart, the well-respected sitting Vice President, had died in 1899, and the office remained empty. President McKinley, who had been particularly close to Hobart, left the decision to the convention at large. Now the Republicans were proposing 41-year-old Col. Theodore Roosevelt, the heroic Rough Rider and current Governor of New York. He was popular with New Yorkers, but his progressive politics were giving the Republican bosses migraines. In a stroke of genius, they decided to kick him upstairs to the Vice Presidency, where he could do no harm. TR wasn’t thrilled, but he bit the bullet.
Matching Bryan’s youthful energy, he also crisscrossed the country grinning and speaking. McKinley had little to say about it, but his close friend and campaign manager, Senator Marcus Hanna was apoplectic about “that cowboy” and advised McKinley that his most important job would be to stay alive for the next four years.
The Main Issue
In 1896, the main issue had been bimetallism, or the free coinage of silver to help stimulate a depressed economy. Bryan was for it; the Republicans dead set against.
But in 1900, the economy had improved substantially, and even most Democrats believed it was a non-issue (except for Bryan, who would always be a “Silverite”). The recent War with Spain in 1898, short, victorious and comparatively bloodless, had left us with three Former Spanish territories: the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico. Like it or not, we were now an Imperial power, and a good many Americans did not like it. Even the ones who supported it were usually half-hearted, since “a free country” is the American way.
The problem, as many saw it, was the fractious and wildly factional violence in the Philippines, which only worsened under American control.
Even those who believed the Islands should be given their freedom (like Cuba), believed it was America’s moral obligation to help stabilize their political situation first: a daunting and thankless task.
Third parties are frequently “spoilers” in political contests, and while the Populists were the third largest splinter group and made a good deal of noise, they did not truly affect the outcome.
By 1900, the Populists had been quarreling amongst themselves for four years; they had their own “right”, “left” and “center” wings, some allied with the Democrats, some with the Republicans. Some fielded their own tickets.
In the end, they again chose Bryan as their candidate, although some of their die-hards fielded Wharton Barker on a separate ballot line. The Socialists, on the way to making increased gains, nominated Eugene Debs. But it would be the Prohibition Party’s John Woolley who received nearly a quarter of a million votes.
McKinley would have won just as easily without them.
The outcome was never in doubt. William McKinley received a little more than 51% of the votes; William Jennings Bryan garnered only 45%, and that included the Populists. The balance was split between other splinter groups.
President McKinley looked forward to his second term with confidence. He was always personally popular. Most people liked him. One of the few that didn’t was Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist, who pumped a couple of bullets in him six months after his second inaugural
And “that cowboy” would be in the White House.
Leech, Margaret, In the Days of McKinley – Harper & Brothers, 1959
Morgan, H. Wayne – McKinley and His America – Syracuse University Press, 1964