Election season, 19th century style ... a lot's changed

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Over the course of 100 days in the fall of 1896, William Jennings Bryan gave more than 500 speeches. He was the Democratic nominee, and his presidential campaign was so broke, he took his message directly to just about every Midwestern town with a train station and a soapbox. Several million people showed up.

He was a fantastic orator. Picture him with 10,000 screaming Nebraskans behind him, and you can imagine what his Republican rival was up against.

"You had William McKinley," says historian Jennifer Burns, "who knew right away that he was going to lose in any head-to-head battle if it came down to personality [and] oratory.

"[McKinley] said, 'I might as well put a trapeze on my front lawn and go against a professional gymnast if I go up against Bryan.'"

So he didn't.

While Bryan thrilling crowds with his charisma and his rousing speechifying, McKinley relied on a well-funded, highly-skilled network of political operatives and entrenched party loyalists. Then he just sat back and let the machine work for him.

"He simply sat on his front porch," says Burns, "and let people come to him."

Welcome to the world of pre-modern presidential campaigns. A time when, if you wanted to know what William McKinley or James Garfield or Benjamin Harrison thought about trade policy or international affairs, you could literally get some friends together, knock on the candidate's front door and ask him.

But he wasn't going to come to you.

"It was essentially this idea that you were trying too hard," says Burns. "If you want the presidency, there was something inherently problematic about that."

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