Many of the tactics we are seeing in the current presidential campaign had their genesis a century ago in the rough-and-tumble election of 1896.
Perhaps best known for William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech, the face-off between Bryan and William McKinley was more than a contest over monetary policies.
The way national campaigns were conducted was revolutionized by the national political parties' dominance in setting policy and controlling funds, Bryan's cross-country barnstorming and the power of direct mail advertising and pamphleteering.
But above all, it was the Republican extraordinary success at raising money and spending it strategically that sealed the victory for them. On a per capita basis, the GOP spent more per vote than any time in American history, at least before this year.
Marcus Alonzo Hanna, the crafty Republican National party chairman and McKinley loyalist, was the man in charge and it is he who must be credited with ushering in the modern era of political campaigning and "fat-cat" fund raising.
Hanna's use of private poll, media plans and financing strategies are a compelling case study for today's campaign managers. Hanna believe that political campaigns should be run as a business. And when it came to business, Hanna knew his priorities. "There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can't remember what the second one is," he observed.
Hanna did not have to contend with campaign financing laws that sought to limit contributions. There were no distinctions between "soft" and "hard" money, and no one thought twice when a donor hedged his bets by contributing to both parties.
Hanna left nothing to chance in his fund raising, soliciting the business community systematically in a manner calculated to maximize contributions.
Potential donors received "assessments" determined by formula. For banks, for example, the levy was calculated at the rate of one-quarter of one percent of their capital. Business leaders, regardless of party affiliation, responded, coughing up huge sums of money to retain the gold standard and, as they saw it, economic prosperity.
John D. Rockefeller presented Hanna with a gift of $250,000, compliments of the Standard Oil Company (the equivalent of $7.5 million today). James H. Hill, of the Great Northern Railroad, gave $50,000 ($1.5 million in 1996 dollars). Supporter John McCall, president of New York Life, explained, "I consented to a payment (of $50,000). . . not to defeat the Democratic Party, but to defeat the Free Silver heresy, and I thank God I did it."
Charles Dawes, the GOP campaign treasurer in Chicago, kept precise records of donations. He noted in his diary that on September 11, Hanna handed him an envelope containing $50,000 in cash, the gift of one railroad. The same day Dawes deposited a check for a similar amount from another source. There were small checks too, but more than one quarter of the donations were in amounts of $1,000 or more.
In the Bryan camp, the financial picture was bleak. Though most of his supporters were true believers, they were cash-poor. In debt, unemployed, strapped with mortgages, they could offer litle more than their services as volunteers.
Some 14 million people voted in the election that Hanna and company spent $3.57 million to win, the equivalent in today's dollars of $107.1 million (compared with $675,000 reported by the Bryan campaign).
McKinley received 7,104,779 popular votes to 6,502,925 for Bryan. Even with McKinley's overwhelming financial edge and his superior organization, he won the popular vote by less than 500,000. But in the Electoral College where it counted, McKinley was never in trouble -- prevailing by 271 to 176. Still, millions of people rejected the one-sided onslaught of campaign literature and media support for McKinley. Afterward, some began what has become a century-long discussion of financing reform.
Today, with President Clinton setting records as the all-time leading fund-raiser, the calls continue. By most accounts, this year's campaign will be the most expensive in history.
By November, some experts say campaign spending may well surpass $600 million -- money spent by the parties, by the candidate's campaigns and by outside organizations like labor unions or advocacy groups on the candidates' behalf. Still, even as politicians of all persuasions pledge reform in financing, the smart money says don't bet on it. Hanna, it seems, had it right a hundred years ago.
ROBERT J. GROSSMAN is professor of Management at Marist College, Poughkeepsie.