Thursday, November 3, 2016

A Quiet Realignment

As these things go, the presidential election of 1896, which was held 120 years ago today, was a quiet realigning election.

Political scientists will tell you that a realigning election is a dramatic shift within a political system.

In a democracy such as the one in the United States, that tends to mean the ascendance of a new coalition that eclipses one that has been dominant.

My original major in college was political science. Later I shifted to journalism but not before I had been introduced to many of the concepts in our political system that continue to be seen in politics in America — one of which is the concept of realigning elections.

One of the things I learned in my brief career as a political science scholar, though, was there is no absolute agreement among political scientists about realigning elections — which elections are realigning elections, the definition of a realigning election, even whether realigning elections really do occur.

However, it is safe to say that a majority of political scientists would conclude that realigning elections do happen, roughly every three to four decades, and they are evident more in terms of voting patterns than in sudden power shifts from one party to another — although they are frequently characterized by landslides.

More specifically, political scientists say, realigning elections represent a transition from one "political system" to another.

That three– to four–decade window held true in the 19th century, but shifts seemed to come more frequently in the 20th century — although perhaps history needs a little more perspective before rendering such judgments.

A realigning election is usually — but not always — characterized by a shift from dominance by one party to dominance by another. The election of 1800, for example, is seen as the beginning of the "First Party System" in the United States, a period when George Washington's Federalists and Thomas Jefferson's Democrat–Republicans competed for control of the presidency, the chambers of Congress and the state governments, until the next phase in America's political evolution.

That was in 1828. Andrew Jackson and the emerging Democrat Party seized power and remained mostly in control of the federal and state governments for the next 30 years, establishing the "Second Party System," which eventually yielded to the "Third Party System" in 1860. That was on the brink of the outbreak of the Civil War and the inauguration of Republican Abraham Lincoln.

With only a few exceptions, Republicans held the White House for the next 70 years. That did not prevent another realigning election, though. In fact, the realigning election that heralded the start of the "Fourth Party System" was held on this day in 1896. As I say, it was relatively quiet in the outcome and didn't usher in a period when a different party prevailed. The same party kept winning; what changed was the set of issues. Republicans proved more in sync with the voters on those issues than the Democrats. It was just as simple as that. The Republicans also assembled a new electoral coalition consisting of businessmen, professional men, labor and farmers. Perhaps overshadowing everything else was the "Panic of 1893," an economic depression that was still being felt nearly four years later.

Grover Cleveland, one of only two Democrats to win a national election between 1860 and 1932, presided over that, and it contributed to a general impression of Democrat incompetence. In 1896, unemployment was high, and money became a key factor in presidential politics for the first time. William McKinley and the Republicans outspent the Democrats and William Jennings Bryan by 10 to 1. It has been estimated that the Republicans' 1896 war chest would be worth $3 billion in today's dollars.

The 1896 election was the first national realigning election in which there wasn't a dramatic shift in the balance of power from one party to another. It wasn't even close to a landslide. McKinley received 51.02% of the popular vote and 60.6% of the electoral vote. His numbers were only marginally higher when he sought re–election four years later — in spite of triumph in the Spanish–American War abroad and a booming economy at home.

But the 1896 election gave ammunition to political scientists who contended that realigning elections are not always seen in single elections but sometimes over a period of time. The conditions that ultimately led to the emergence of the "Fourth Party System" actually began with the economic "Panic of 1893." Republicans seized control of both chambers of Congress in the midterm elections of 1894; in fact, the G.O.P. won so many House seats in the midterm (120) that there were relatively few seats left that were plausible takeover targets in 1896 — and many of the seats Republicans had captured represented districts that were more evenly balanced than the election returns of 1894 indicated. Thus, even as McKinley was winning the White House in 1896, his party lost 30 House seats.

Republicans continued winning in the Senate, though. By 1906, Republicans held 61 Senate seats. Even though the number of senators has increased by 12 since then, Republicans have not held more than 55 Senate seats since the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

Still, with the exception of the Wilson years, Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress until the Crash.

On the presidential level, voting patterns in several states show how the electorate realigned in Republicans' favor in 1896.

New York was the largest state in the nation at the time. Its support was critical for anyone who wished to be president but especially so for Democrats. Between the end of the Civil War and 1896, Republicans Ulysses S. Grant (1868) and Rutherford B. Hayes (1876) won the presidency without winning New York, but the only Democrat to be elected president during that time, Grover Cleveland, desperately needed New York's electoral votes the first time he won the office.

New York is regarded as reliably Democrat today, but in the late 19th century it was a swing state. In fact, only once had any presidential candidate ever received more than 53% of the state's popular vote. The Republican share of the vote tended to be much healthier in the elections that followed 1896.

You can find similar stories throughout the United States from that time. Things almost certainly became a lot more relaxed for Republican candidates — and a lot more stressful for Democrats.

In fact, there is a strong argument to be made that the only Democrat to be elected president between the "Panic of 1893" and the Stock Market Crash, a period of more than 35 years, did so only because there were two Republicans running — the incumbent president and his predecessor, who ran as a third–party alternative — and they split the Republican vote.

The United States became a much more Republican country on this day 120 years ago.

Does the election of 1896 have anything in common with the election of 2016?

You be the judge.

Historians have long regarded it as one of the most dramatic and complex campaigns in American history.

McKinley did not pursue the nomination in the usual way, which was to appease eastern party bosses. Instead, he relied on the efficiency of his political organization, run by his friend and campaign manager Mark Hanna, an Ohio businessman. He then did most of the campaigning from the front porch of his home in Canton. His remarks reached the voters through newspapers.

Bryan ran as the champion of the working man against the rich, and he blamed the prosperous for the economic conditions the country faced. The root of the problem, Bryan said, was a gold–based money supply, and he promised to switch to silver, which was plentiful, would restore prosperity and would break the grip the wealthy had on the money supply. He conducted his campaign primarily by rail.

Turnout was almost certainly higher than it will be next Tuesday. It has been estimated that more than 90% of eligible voters cast ballots in the 1896 election.

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