William McKinley (first row, center) and his wife, Ida (to his left), meet with the Flower Delegation // Image credit: Used by permission from the McKinley Presidential Library & Museum, Canton, Ohio, via Wikimedia Commons
Presidential campaigns today seem like non-stop odysseys of speeches, interviews, and most importantly travel. But in 1896, presidential candidate William McKinley and his campaign manager, Mark Hanna, formulated a unique strategy that allowed McKinley to run for office without having to ever leave home. Using the media and his own supporters to his advantage, McKinley managed to undertake an aggressive presidential campaign while remaining close to home to care for his ill wife, Ida.
William McKinley and Ida Saxton married in 1871, after the two met at a local picnic. Their family life quickly met with tragedy, though, after Ida's mother died in 1873, followed by the deaths of the couple's two daughters: one, a little girl also named Ida, died during infancy, just months after Ida's own mother died; the other, Katie, died of typhoid fever in 1875. While grieving her losses, Ida developed a series of debilitating health issues, including phlebitis (vein inflammation) and epilepsy, which forced her to frequently use a cane and spend much of her time bedridden.
McKinley, who was elected to the U.S. congress in 1876 and became governor of Ohio in 1891, still appeared at political functions with his wife, even as stories about her declining health were reported. At social events, she would often be seen holding a bouquet of flowers to mask her tremors, and when an epileptic fit attacked her in public, William held a handkerchief over her face until it subsided.
Though Ida spent most of her time indoors due to her condition, William found little ways to show his love for her throughout the day. While he was governor, he would wave to her from a specific spot on the street outside their house as he left for work in the morning. And every day at 3 p.m., he would open his office window, which was visible from where he and Ida lived, and again wave at her as she kept busy inside. They would often end their nights by reading the Bible or playing cribbage together. When McKinley decided to run for president in 1896, he knew Ida's health would play a big role in how the campaign was conducted.
Ida McKinley. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Wanting to campaign, but refusing to leave his wife during what promised to be a lengthy process, McKinley and Hanna came up with a "front porch campaign" that would allow him to run for president from his Canton, Ohio home. The idea was derived from a similar strategy used by James Garfield in 1880.
Before Garfield's day, it was seen as beneath a candidate to "actively" seek the presidency by traveling and talking about themselves; instead, they would have surrogates campaign and boast on their behalf. But Garfield's candidacy was different; as a Civil War hero, people flocked to his Mentor, Ohio home to wish him luck on his campaign. Garfield began speaking to the crowds of well-wishers and reporters, creating unique campaign opportunities in the process. After Garfield's success, Benjamin Harrison used the technique for his 1888 campaign, followed by McKinley, who would soon expand the scope of the front porch.
Instead of traveling by rail and giving speeches in a different city every day, McKinley had the voters come to him. Delegates and special interest groups would arrive in Canton—often accompanied by lively parades—where they would read prepared remarks to McKinley (which he previewed and edited beforehand) before pledging their vote to the Ohio native. McKinley, one of the savviest presidents when it came to press relations, always had newspapermen on hand to report on his growing support. Hanna reimagined the Canton home as less of a permanent campaign stop, and more of a political pilgrimage for those in the Republican party. (Notably, the home was portrayed in the press as having belonged to the McKinleys for decades; in fact, although the couple had moved in shortly after their marriage, they had moved out after their daughter Ida's death in 1873. Over two decades later, they rented the house during the election, partly to create an image of continuity.)
From August through November 1896, approximately 750,000 people shuffled through McKinley's rental. He gave speeches outside at all hours of the day, except for Sunday. Scores of trains arrived, full of people ready to not only meet the future president, but pledge their support and spread the word once they returned home. These delegates included members of Republican clubs, Grand Army of the Republic veterans (a military fraternity), women-led groups, and the occasional oddity, like the Six Footers Club of Pittsburgh, which was made up of people who measured 6-foot or taller.
McKinley's front porch campaign in action. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Ida, for her part, would occasionally serve lemonade to reporters and supporters when her condition allowed it. Other times, when she was either too sick to entertain, or the onlookers became too curious about her condition, she would travel to one of the family's farms to recuperate and remove herself from wandering eyes. Mostly, Mrs. McKinley kept to relatively simple tasks during the campaign. That didn't stop rumors about her health or country loyalty from spreading—at times she was called everything from a lunatic to an English spy. To stave off some of the questions regarding his wife's mental and physical well-being, the McKinley campaign had a biography of Ida written—the first ever for the wife of a presidential candidate—and mailed it to voters, highlighting her patriotism and the reputation of her family.
McKinley's front-porch brain trust, meanwhile, was running against a man whose campaign was the exact opposite: Democrat William Jennings Bryan. A prodigious campaigner, Bryan traveled an estimated 18,000 miles during the election of 1896, giving countless lengthy speeches along the way.
But it turns out that a walk onto the porch was all McKinley needed. He went on to defeat Bryan in both the election of 1896 and again in 1900. His devotion to his wife, and refusal to stray far from her sight, was seen as a political asset instead of a liability. In the 1900 election, McKinley altered his strategy and left most of the physical campaigning to his running mate, Theodore Roosevelt, who campaigned across 24 states for a total of 21,000 miles, outpacing Bryan in the process.
And once her husband was elected, Ida McKinley made history as a First Lady. In addition to being the first incumbent to ever be captured on film and to visit a foreign country, she advocated for the right of women to receive a proper education. She was also the first incumbent First Lady to publicly endorse women's suffrage.
When McKinley was assassinated by anarchist Leon Czolgosz in 1901, Ida proved stronger than many anticipated. She nursed McKinley at his bedside during the eight days he survived after the attack, and she accompanied his coffin from Buffalo (where the assassination had taken place) to Washington, D.C. Ida would survive nearly six more years, and upon her death was interred along with McKinley and their daughters in the McKinley Memorial in Canton—the city of the "front porch campaign" all those years ago.