What We Learn When We Compare Obama’s Two Victories with This One Election from the Past

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Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, August 2015). A paperback edition is coming in March 2017.


The more one looks at the 1896 Presidential Election between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan, and the 2008 and 2012 Presidential Elections between Barack Obama and John McCain and Mitt Romney, the more one realizes the dramatic similarities in the electoral maps.

1896 is famous for the battle of the urban versus rural areas of the nation, and again in 2008 and 2012, with the suburban areas joining the urban areas. Likely in 2016 and beyond, it is still the battle of the urban and suburban areas versus the rural areas of America. The only difference is that the parties which benefit have almost completely flipped.

In 1896, the Republicans won all of the New England states; all of the Middle Atlantic states; and all of the industrializing Midwest; in addition to California and Oregon. There were only 45 states then, as Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska, and Hawaii were not yet part of the Union. The Democrats won the rural states in the Great Plains; much of the Mountain West; and the entire South, as well as the state of Washington.

The only differences between 1896 and the 2008 and 2012 results were the states of Washington, Florida, Virginia, Colorado and Nevada going Democratic all three times; North Carolina the outlier in the South going Democratic in 1896 and 2008; Indiana the outlier going Republican in 1896 and 2012; and Kentucky, West Virginia, and North Dakota going Republican all three times.

One might say that ten states being different in electoral vote results makes this comparison not significant, but since there were 45 states, that means about one fourth were different, but three fourths were the same result if one switches the parties that triumphed. And the fact that McKinley won 23 states to 22 for Bryan and the Electoral College results were 271-176; and then compare it to Obama winning 28-22 in states and 365-183 in 2008 and Obama winning 26-24 in states and 332-206 in 2012, leads to the conclusion that the division of states, close to just a bare margin of states, and percentage of electoral votes, about 60-40 percent, is very similar.

Urban America won in 1896 with a conservative message, while urban and suburban America won with a progressive message in 2008 and 2012, likely for the long term future. So in 1896, the Republican Party was destined to domination nationally for 36 years, until 1932, except when the party split in 1912, and a very close election for President in 1916, giving us the only Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, during that third of a century.

One can forecast that the same situation now favors the Democrats nationally for the next third of a century from 2008 on, until possibly the 2030s or beyond, when the Republican Party will possibly have transformed itself back into a viable party on the national level for the Presidency, or a successor party will have emerged.

1896 was a transformational election, and it seems clear that 2008 was also the same, making the list of turning point elections those of 1800, 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932, 1968, and 2008. Notice the time span as 28, 32, 36, 36, 36, and finally 40 years, a bit late, caused by the controversial and disputed Presidential Election of 2000, where the Supreme Court intervened and went against the national popular vote that gave Al Gore the majority, denied by Court interference in what should have been a state matter to resolve. So assuming an average of 28 to 36 years as a cycle, expect this transformation to last until probably 2036 or beyond.




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