McKinley’s 1896 Campaign

In the summer of 1896 the Democrats held both the House and Senate. They had turned on their incumbent, Grover Cleveland, and nominated William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was a fist-pumping thirty-six year old populist who crisscrossed the country by rail, speaking to ever-larger crowds. GOP candidate William McKinley, on the other hand, was distant and lifeless at the podium. At fifty-three he was in no way inclined or equipped to joust with the rambunctious Bryan. McKinley had other reasons to dislike the idea of racing from whistle-stop to whistle-stop. He was reluctant to leave his beloved wife, Ida, who lived in the grip of constant despair.

The Republican campaign manager, Mark Hanna, had a simple strategy. Instead of sending his candidate out to meet the people, he would let the people – represented by the newspaper reporters – come to meet the candidate. Not only was McKinley happy to stay put on his porch in Canton, Ohio, but the reporters loved it also. They didn’t have to travel around from city to city, living in a different hotel each night.

Bryan made some 600 stops and spoke to 5 million people while McKinley’s brigade of reporters delivered a stream of stories that showed millions of readers the republican candidate in the context of his home, his family, and his small town. It worked well for the public got the image of a presidential candidate not as a politician but as a family man.

But something else happened in 1896 that changed forever how presidential campaigns were conducted. With the advent of the movie camera, one-reelers were being screened in nickelodeons. In September Mark Hanna invited American Mutoscope founder W. K. L. Dickson and camera operator, Bill Bitzer, to Canton to stage and document a re-enactment of McKinley receiving the news of his nomination earlier in the summer. Bitzer set his camera in the front yard facing the front porch and started cranking as McKinley and his secretary walked towards the lens. McKinley pauses and puts on his hat and dons his spectacles. He squints down at a piece of paper then doffs his hat and mops his brow. The two men then walk out of the view of the camera. Thus William McKinley had become the first presidential candidate to appear on film.

Dickson premiered the film the evening of October 12, 1896, in New York City. At the sight of Major McKinley’s image, the crowd burst into shouts and applause. Now a man who would be president, who wanted them in some way to know and trust him, was coming to them, looking at them, walking past them, through this mysterious medium. Screened repeatedly in New York, Baltimore, Chicago, New Haven, and St. Louis this one minute movie transported the Major’s image around the country. McKinley and his front porch could now be seen anywhere, anytime someone flipped the switch on a projector.

It should be noted that Candidate McKinley won the election, 271 electoral votes to Bryan’s 176. As president, the Ohioan became a regular in newsreels that circulated among theaters throughout the United States, helping him to get re-elected in 1900.

Editor’s Notes: This article is a brief summary of Chapter Eleven in Michael Dolan’s new book entitled, “The American Porch – an informal history of an informal place”. It was published in 2002 by Lyons Press.