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'The Most Important Thing': Mark Hanna and the Birth of Modern Presidential Campaigns

By Bryan Warner

RALEIGH - In 1896, the United States was just 31 years removed from the fratricidal Civil War that nearly tore the young nation asunder. The country was still in search of its identity on the world stage, an adolescent suffering from the growing pains of Manifest Destiny, far from the sleeping giant that would be awakened by the bombs of Pearl Harbor four decades later.

But in that year when Mark Twain was refuting the exaggerated reports of his death and Bram Stoker published "Dracula," the modern American presidential campaign was born. The midwife was coal and iron magnate Mark Hanna. 

Five years earlier, Hanna had spearheaded the successful Ohio gubernatorial campaign of William McKinley.  In 1896, Hanna and McKinley turned their sites to the White House in hopes of continuing Ohio’s prowess for producing presidents -- going into that year, four of the past seven had hailed from the Buckeye State.

Mark Hanna

"There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can't remember the second." - Mark Hanna

Standing between the Republican McKinley and the Oval Office was William Jennings Bryan, nominee of not one, but three parties: Democratic, Populist and Silver Republican.

A deft campaign manager, Hanna raised about $3.5 million in donations, mainly from wealthy bankers and industrialists who were terrified by Bryan’s anti-gold-standard, populist platform.  The sum was by far the most ever raised by a presidential contender to that point, and allowed Hanna and McKinley to engineer a finely tuned campaign with 1,400 staffers churning out a monsoon of pamphlets, posters and leaflets, while organizing whistle-stop tours and stump speeches across the country.

Ultimately, McKinley outspent Bryan by a 12-1 margin and went on to win what many presidential historians view as a realigning election that saw the demise of an old Democratic Party favoring small government and ushered in the early 20th century GOP dominance of the White House.

The unparalleled fund-raising success of the McKinley campaign prompted Hanna to quip, "There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can't remember the second."

Though cynical, Hanna’s take on money in presidential races has only grown truer with time.  The $3.5 million raised by the McKinley camp is roughly $85 million in present-day buying power. By contrast, the Barack Obama campaign spent about $740 million in 2008.  To be fair, McKinley didn’t have to pay for private jets or TV ads and faced a national election comprised of just 45 states with a total population of about 75 million, versus the 308 million today.

Ever the bridesmaid, Bryan returned to challenge McKinley in 1900, only to be again outspent and outvoted.  However, McKinley and Hanna had relatively little time to relish their cash-fueled electoral triumph.  In September of 1901, McKinley was mortally wounded by an anarchist assassin, elevating progressive Teddy Roosevelt to the White House.

"Now that damn cowboy is president," Hanna reportedly lamented upon Roosevelt’s ascension.

Although he died of typhoid fever before he was able to plot a primary challenge to Roosevelt in 1904, Hanna’s legacy has been seen in the campaign coffers of most every major presidential contender since.

In the wake of the Watergate scandal, Congress attempted to keep presidential campaign spending in check through a public financing program.  Already in need of significant updates and renovations, presidential public financing suffered what could be a fatal blow in 2008 when Obama became the first major candidate in the program’s history to opt out -- a luxury afforded by his record-breaking fund raising, much of it from small-dollar contributions, but even more collected from big donors.

While the Obama campaign rode the path to the White House on soaring populist rhetoric and ideals more fitting of fellow-Democrat William Jennings Bryan, its bursting campaign treasury was McKinley-like in sheer wealth, dwarfing John McCain’s spending by $400 million, and even surpassing the $646 million spent by George W. Bush and John Kerry -- combined -- in 2004.

With a looming 2012 presidential contest potentially more costly than the one before, and GOP contenders sure to take a page from the Obama money machine, the ghost of Mark Hanna lives on, still smugly trying to recall the second most important thing in politics.

Bryan Warner is the director of communications for the N.C. Center for Voter Education.