"Soon the United States will have as many political parties as Spain and will be split up into innumerable factions and groups. . . . The following table of the rearranged parties is given:
(1) The gold Republican party.
(2) The free-silver Democrats, among whom are (a) those who want Populist support and (b) those who don't want Populist support.
(3) The free-silver Republicans.
(4) The gold Democrats, among whom are (a) those who will support McKinley and (b) those who will nominate a ticket of their own.
(5) The Prohibitionists.
(6) The bolting Prohibitionists.
(7) The Bryan Populists, among whom are (a) those who favor Bryan and Sewall and (b) those who are for Bryan and Watson.
(8) The anti-Bryan Populists.
(9) The voters who are on the fence.
(10) The voters who have taken to the woods."
--Mexican Herald, quoted in Public Opinion, 27 August 1896
The election of 1896 was one of the most complicated in U.S. history. As the Mexican Herald observed, four different parties' national conventions split, and in two cases the "bolters" (those who left their parties) ran separate presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Populists ran a separate vice-presidential candidate. Below is a list of the parties that fielded presidential candidates, with links to information about each.
The Republican Party won the presidency and control of Congress, despite the defection of pro-silver Republicans from the West.
The Democratic Party held the presidency when the campaign began, but President Grover Cleveland did not support his own party's candidate. The party split, and Cleveland expressed his support for the Gold Democratic "bolters."
National delegates of the People's Party divided over whether to endorse William Jennings Bryan, whom Silver Democrats had already chosen as their nominee (see the campaign chronology). The convention endorsed him over strenuous protests from "middle-of-the-road" Populists, who remained strong enough to force the nomination of a separate vice-presidential candidate, Tom Watson. The resulting confusion contributed to the continuing decline of Populist fortunes.
The Prohibitionist Party had peaked in strength in 1888; its convention also divided over whether to address the money question or to present a "narrow-gauge" platform focused solely on the prohibition of liquor.
The Silver Party, tiny and overwhelmingly Western, endorsed the Silver Democratic candidates but drafted and passed their own platform.
The Socialist Labor Party nominated candidates, though Socialism had not yet achieved the strength it would after 1900. Many future Socialists, such as Eugene V. Debs, called themselves Populists in 1896 and supported William Jennings Bryan.
© 2000, Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College