Populists at the Polls: Economic Factors in the 1896 Presidential Election

51 Pages Posted: 16 Oct 2017

See all articles by Barry Eichengreen

Barry Eichengreen

University of California, Berkeley; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR)

Michael R. Haines

Colgate University - Economics Department; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Matthew Jaremski

Utah State University - Huntsman School of Business; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

David A. Leblang

University of Virginia; University of Virginia - College of Arts and Sciences; University of Virginia - Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics; University of Virginia - Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy

Date Written: October 2017

Abstract

The 1896 presidential election between William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley has gained new salience in the wake of the 2016 contest. We provide the first systematic analysis of voting patterns in 1896, combining county-level returns with economic, financial, demographic and climatological data. Specifically, we consider the economic concerns of the Populists with falling crop prices, high interest rates and railroad monopolies. We show that Bryan did well where mortgage interest rates were high, railroad penetration was low, and crop prices had declined by most over the previous decade. Using our estimates, we show that further declines in crop prices or increases in interest rates would have been enough to tip the Electoral College in Bryan’s favor. But to change the outcome, the additional fall in crop prices would have had to be large. The counterfactual increase in interest rates appears, at first blush, to have been more modest. But where previous authors have argued that interest rates came down in the 1890s because of the entry of additional banks, our estimates indicate that bank entry would have had to be very significantly slower to tip the election. There is no question that economic grievances mattered in 1896. But small or even moderate changes in economic conditions would not have changed the outcome of the election.

Suggested Citation

Eichengreen, Barry and Haines, Michael R. and Jaremski, Matthew and Leblang, David A., Populists at the Polls: Economic Factors in the 1896 Presidential Election (October 2017). NBER Working Paper No. w23932, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3053722

Barry Eichengreen (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley ( email )

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National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

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Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR)

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Michael R. Haines

Colgate University - Economics Department ( email )

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National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

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Matthew Jaremski

Utah State University - Huntsman School of Business ( email )

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United States

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) ( email )

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David A. Leblang

University of Virginia ( email )

PO Box 400787
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA 22904
United States

University of Virginia - College of Arts and Sciences ( email )

VA
United States

University of Virginia - Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics ( email )

PO Box 400787
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA 22904
United States

University of Virginia - Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy ( email )

235 McCormick Rd.
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Charlottesville, VA 22904-4893
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