The United States presidential election of November 3, 1896, saw Republican William McKinley defeat Democrat William Jennings Bryan in a campaign considered by historians to be one of the most dramatic and complex in American history.
The 1896 campaign is often considered by political scientists to be a realigning election that ended the old Third Party System and began the Fourth Party System. McKinley forged a coalition in which businessmen, professionals, skilled factory workers and prosperous farmers were heavily represented; he was strongest in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and Pacific Coast. Bryan was the nominee of the Democrats, the Populist Party, and the Silver Republicans. He was strongest in the South, rural Midwest, and Rocky Mountain states.
Economic issues including bimetallism, the gold standard, free silver, and the tariff, were crucial. Republican campaign manager Mark Hanna pioneered many modern campaign techniques, facilitated by a $3.5 million budget. He outspent Bryan by a factor of five. The Democratic Party's repudiation of the Bourbon Democrats (their pro-business wing, represented by incumbent President Grover Cleveland), set the stage for 16 years of Republican control of the White House, ended only by a Republican split in 1912 that resulted in the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Although Bryan lost the election, his coalition of "outsiders" would dominate the Democratic Party well into the twentieth century, and would play a crucial role in the liberal economic programs of Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. McKinley did win, and his policies of promoting pluralism, industrial growth, and the gold standard determined national policies for two decades.1