The Front Porch Campaign

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The collapse of Republican confidence was evident in Ohio, but McKinley was tranquil. He benignly received his many visitors, and with his “buoyant spirit” sustained Hanna and the other campaign managers. McKinley’s attitude was like that of a parson who sees his congregation carried away by the excitement of a camp meeting. He deplored the hysteria, but felt sure that his flock would soon be back in the old pews. The common people, he told his friends, would put the matter right. It was only necessary to make them understand the principles. Hanna was preparing an educational program of unexampled extent and thoroughness.

 

While Bryan’s eloquence was the greatest single asset of the Democrats, he was not conducting a one-man campaign. In challenging “the interests,” the transformed party had not antagonized the mining magnates, and it was supplied with funds to spread the gospel of silver. Hanna’s plans for counterpropaganda would be costly beyond the resources on which he could ordinarily rely; and while his organization was forming he undertook to shake down the New York financiers, who had most at stake in the election. Wall Street was apathetic, cold to McKinley, and unacquainted with his manager. Hanna’s first efforts met with rebuff and discouragement. Bryan had succeeded, John Hay wrote Henry Adams in September, “in scaring the Gold bugs out of their five wits; if he had scared them a little, they would have come down handsome to Hanna. But he has scared them so blue that they think they had better keep what they have got left in their pockets against the evil day.” In the end, Hanna’s salesmanship prevailed. The financiers paid up, and lent Hanna their assistance in organizing a systematic collection. Banks were regularly assessed for subscriptions, and corporations and life insurance companies were induced to make liberal contributions. A campaign fund of more than three and a half million dollars—unprecedented at that time—was disbursed by the Republican National Committee. The greater part of the money came from New York and its vicinity, and it was largely expended in the doubtful states of the West.

With it Hanna undertook to counteract the emotional fascination of “free silver” and “cheap money” by instructing hundreds of thousands of plain people in the meaning of the terms. The committee reached out to work with rural newspapers and schoolhouse meetings. The country was invaded by an army of paid speakers, and deluged with tons of literature, printed in a dozen languages. More than a million copies were distributed of a single pamphlet, William Allen White’s mocking anti-Populist tract, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” Simple economic lessons stressed the disadvantage of inflation to people of limited means—to those dependent on pensions, to holders of insurance policies and depositors in savings banks, to all who owned a bit of property, or were trying to save something for their old age or for their children. In persuasive presentation and efficient organization, the educational campaign was proof of Hanna’s genius for political management.

Hanna was not a boastful man. He fully acknowledged the contribution of “McKinley’s strong and noble personality” to the campaign. McKinley’s conception of his candidacy was so passive that he at first gave the impression of intending to make no campaign at all. He had decided to stay at home and address only the people who cared to visit him there. Before his nomination, he had made two speaking engagements, both nonpolitical in character, requiring his presence in July at the Cleveland Centennial celebration and at Mount Union College. Except for three days’ absence to keep these appointments and one weekend of rest in August, McKinley remained in Canton from the date of his nomination until the election, available at all hours to the public on every day but Sunday.

McKinley was no match for his younger opponent in dramatic presence and oratorical power, and he refused, as he told Dawes, to enter the competition. He may have been influenced by the example set by Benjamin Harrison in his second and losing campaign in 1892, but the idea of the “front porch campaign” seems to have been a natural outgrowth of the many groups that visited Canton. McKinley preferred the attitude of responding to the demands of his friends, of desiring election without going to seek it. He was so reluctant to stimulate interest in his campaign that he expressed himself as “averse to anything like an effort being made to bring crowds here.” The Republican National Committee was active, nevertheless, in drumming up delegations, and the railroads were glad to co-operate. Low excursion rates from all parts of the country made the trip to Canton, as the free-silver Cleveland Plain Dealer disgustedly remarked, “cheaper than staying at home.” For the eager Republican pilgrims, the journey combined the excitement of a political demonstration with the pleasure of an outing. Decked in campaign badges, caps, and neckties, they tumbled off the trains into the welcoming arms of Canton. Committees of greeters were on hand at the depot, with the well-mounted and nattily uniformed squads of the troop that Canton had organized for escort duty. The parades then formed around their bands and banners, and guided by the clattering horsemen, wound through a town ablaze with red, white, and blue, and noisy with the cheers of the citizens on the curbstones. At the foot of North Market Street the delegations passed beneath the ornate plaster structure of the McKinley arch, surmounted by the candidate’s portrait, and at last broke ranks to crowd onto the McKinley lawn.