McKinley first to campaign by phone

From Niles to the White House

Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series marking the 120th anniversary of Niles native William McKinley’s U.S. presidency.

President William McKinley was the first president to campaign by telephone.

It has happened to all of us. We pick up the telephone when we are in the middle of doing something to hear the voice of a candidate campaigning for office. Today, it usually is a recording of the candidate asking for your vote.

Many voters see these “robocalls” as irritating, but the practice of using the telephone during a campaign is not new, and in fact, it dates back to the presidential election of 1896.

Various newspapers reported on the election, including in-depth coverage from the Canton Repository, founded by Ida Saxton McKinley’s grandfather. Ida’s uncle ran the newspaper during William McKinley’s time.

Of course, this was also the hometown newspaper for McKinley, who resided in Canton after leaving the Mahoning Valley. The newsprint coverage offered the public close access to the candidate. Newspapers enabled the public, as well as campaign staff, to keep up with the campaign. Campaign headquarters in various cities also needed to be able to communicate directly with one another. Here is where the telephone becomes an invaluable tool.

Blame it all on McKinley. Or rather, blame it all on his campaign staffers, including Charles G. Dawes and William Osborne. According to Stanley L. Jones, author of “The Presidential Election of 1896,” the McKinley campaign centered in Canton, New York and Chicago. Dawes was McKinley’s chief aide and confidante in Chicago. Osborne was McKinley’s “right-hand man” in New York.

Jones stated, “when a private telephone line was established between New York and Chicago headquarters, the telephones were installed in the offices of Dawes and Osborne. Dawes and Osborne enjoyed an intimate correspondence, with McKinley and his campaign manager, Mark Hanna.”

The McKinley Campaign House on Market Street in Canton, which the McKinley’s rented from Ida’s father early in their marriage, was again rented by the McKinleys for use in the 1896 campaign as a place from which to conduct “the Front Porch Campaign.”

A telephone, along with a telegraph — state-of-the-art technology in 1896 — were installed in the house. The candidate and his staff extensively used this technology.

McKinley and his campaign workers used this technology to keep up with the latest news about McKinley’s political opponent, William Jennings Bryan. Additionally, McKinley and his staff used these items to plan their political moves.

According to historian Rebecca Edwards, “through telegraph and telephone, including new long-distance telephone services, McKinley was in close touch daily with his campaign manager, Marcus Hanna, and with Republican headquarters in New York.”

When McKinley became president, he preferred to use the telephone rather than written communication, which explains why there is a lack of written communication documents in McKinley’s presidential papers. Through the use of this technology, the course of presidential campaigns came into the modern age. Eventually, technology used in campaigns came to include radio, film, and later television. Now it includes the Internet and email, as well as social media.

McKinley, a Niles native, served 120 years ago, beginning with his March 1897 inauguration.

Scarmuzzi is curator of collections at the National McKinley Birthplace Museum in Niles.