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September 20, 2004

The 1864, 1896, and 2004 Elections

Rasmussen Reports has a webpage comparing the 2004 and 1896 elections that is worth reading. But it is wrong. The election to compare with 2004 is not 1896, despite what Karl Rove may think, but 1864....

... In 1864, incumbent Lincoln had gotten a definite minority of the popular vote in 1860, and was so offensive in personality and policy to the losers that many states seceded. He was blamed for getting our troops bogged down in a civil war which, while mostly won militarily, and with some spectacular successes, seemed to be dragging on indefinitely.Lincoln was, however, very popular with people actually in the military. People made fun of his "nation-building" policy in the South, which was getting nowhere. They also made fun of his folksy western style and speech, how little he learned in his college years, and his supposedly dull and uncultured intellect. Many saw him as the tool of Republican Party leaders-- in particular, of his Secretary of State, Seward, and his all-star Cabinet. (Not of his vice-president-- though he did switch to a new VP, Democrat Andrew Johnson, for the 1864 election, in order to broaden his support.) A major Democratic accusation was that Lincoln had destroyed civil liberties in the North using his war powers and in defiance of the courts. Lincoln and his Republican Congress also had expanded the federal government considerably using the cover of the war, and government contracts were making certain Republicans rich.

The challenger, McClellan, had a background in the same organization as Lincoln-- the Illinois Central, of which McClellan had been president and for which Lincoln was an outside litigator. McClellan ran on his war record, though some people said that his leadership had actually helped the enemy more than his own side. His position was confused, though, because while he was pro-war, merely charging that Lincoln was running it poorly, much of his party was anti-war. This was intentional-- the party leaders wanted balance, and McClellan was a safer bet than wilder anti-war candidates. Despite his failures as a general, however, McClellan still considered himself much smarter than Lincoln, to whom his attitude had been condescending even while he was a general. Despite this, it was clear that the Republican Party was the party of ideas even in domestic policy-- national bank charters, the Homestead Act, high tariffs (I didn't say *good* ideas)-- while the Democrats wanted to block such innovations.

The main feature of the 1896 election, on the other hand, was that economic policy so dominated that leading figures and blocks of voters from each party bolted to join the other. The incumbent President Grover Cleveland was a "Gold Democrat", favoring tight monetary policy, and was really more like Republican McKinley than like Democrat Bryan. Bryan was from a traditionally Republican state, Nebraska, and he attracted lots of Western Republican support while losing Gold Democrats in the East-- including Senators on both sides. Other notable features were that neither foreign policy nor issues of character played any role, that McKinley far outspent Bryan, and that McKinley was known for gravitas and long expertise in Washington, while Bryan was known for his oratory. Hard to see Bush and Kerry there!

Posted by erasmuse at September 20, 2004 09:56 AM

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