The Monday Morning Quarterback

The Most Memorable Presidential Campaign Ever 

These days, Presidential election cycles seem to go on for four years, starting the day after the last election. News coverage is about the horse race, not the issues. And the margins of victory are often so small, it’s believed that the actual ballot counts could have gone either way. Today, with just over a week to go to the conclusion of the 2012 election, let’s journey back to a time when a Presidential race got entirely out of hand.

The biggest shock of the election of 1884 was that it brought a Democrat, Grover Cleveland, to the White House for the first time in more than 25 years. But that result came only after a long campaign marked by some of the most notorious mudslinging – including a paternity scandal – in politics.

Grover Cleveland, the Democrat, was a New York lawyer who chose to send a substitute to take his place in the Civil War. Entirely legal at the time, he was criticized for it throughout his political career.

James G. Blaine, the Republican, was born into a political family in Pennsylvania, but when he married a woman from Maine, moved to her home state. There he was elected to Congress and served as Speaker of the House.

Cleveland actually campaigned little in 1884, because it was traditional for Presidential candidates to remain in their home communities and send out speakers on their behalf. On the other hand, the ambitious Blaine ran a very busy campaign, giving about 400 speeches.

But at the beginning of the campaign, Cleveland encountered a huge obstacle when a scandal erupted. The bachelor Cleveland, it was revealed, was having an affair with a widow in Buffalo. And it was also alleged that he had fathered a son with the woman.

The Republicans seized on the paternity scandal, mocking Cleveland by chanting the rhyme, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?”

On the other hand, the Republican candidate created a huge problem for himself just a week before the election. He attended a meeting in a Protestant church at which a minister chided those who had left the Republican Party by stating, “We don’t propose to leave our party and identify with the party whose antecedents are rum, Romanism, and rebellion.”

Blaine sat quietly during the minister’s broadside – aimed at Catholics and Irish voters in particular. The scene was reported widely in the press, and it is believed to have cost Blaine in the election, particularly in New York City.

Perhaps due to Cleveland’s scandal, the 1884 election was closer than many people expected. Cleveland won the popular vote by a narrow margin, less than half a percent, but secured 218 electoral votes to Blaine’s 182. Blaine lost the state of New York by little more than a thousand votes, and it was believed the “rum, Romanism, and rebellion” comments had been the fatal blow.

The Democrats, celebrating Cleveland’s victory, took to mocking the Republican attacks on Cleveland by chanting, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!”

Presidential history buffs will remember that Grover Cleveland served a term in the White House, but was defeated in his bid for reelection in 1888. However, he achieved something unique in American politics when he ran again in 1892 and was elected, thus becoming the only president to serve two terms that were not consecutive.

The man who defeated Cleveland in 1888, Benjamin Harrison, appointed Blaine as his Secretary of State. Blaine was active as a diplomat, but resigned the post in 1892, perhaps hoping to once again run for president, setting the stage for another Cleveland-Blaine election. Blaine wasn’t able to secure the nomination; his health failed and he died in 1893.

– Art Reker, Account and Creative Executive