The Triumph of William McKinley

Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters


“The Triumph of McKinley is the Triumph of Karl Rove. This is a rousing tale told by a master storyteller whose love of politics, campaigning, and combat shines through on every page.  Both the man and his times are brought to such vivid life that I felt myself catapulted back to the turn of the last century. And it was great fun to be there!”

—Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Team of Rivals “Having run—and won—two presidential campaigns, Karl Rove knows elections. The Triumph of William McKinley is a deeply informed and highly engaging account of one of the seminal elections in American history, the 1896 victory that ushered in more than a generation of Republican dominance. A vivid, intriguing and compellingly modern rendering of one of the most underappreciated episodes in American political history.”

—Charles Krauthammer, #1 bestselling author of Things That Matter


“Either politics used to be more fun or Karl Rove just makes it seem that way. Whichever, his account of the 1896 election is written with great verve, even as it is informed by thorough research and illuminated by shrewd insight. This is political history at its most engaging.”

—H. W. Brands, Professor of History, University of Texas at Austin, and author of

Traitor to His Class


“Informed by his passion for history and by his love of strategy, Karl Rove has painted a colorful and detailed portrait of an important American moment. Highly recommended!”

—Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Lion


“Karl Rove, who knows a thing or two about presidential campaigns, looks back at a watershed election over a century ago and shows how the winner, William McKinley, used it to change his party, the political process, and the nation. It’s all here: the big themes, the backstage maneuvers, the personalities, the hoopla. A great read for historians, political junkies, and—in our own wild election cycle—Americans.”

—Richard Brookhiser, author of Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln


Karl Rove, bestselling author of Courage and Consequence and visionary behind the Republican Party’s last two presidential victories, has written a historical book with important lessons that can be applied to today’s political environment. The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters (on sale November 24, 2015) will be published one year before the next presidential election, coinciding with the beginning of the primary season in which over a dozen candidates are vying for the Republican nomination. The book offers a fresh look at the 1896 race between Democrat William Jennings Bryan and the man who defeated him and became the 25th president of the United States, Republican William McKinley.

The Triumph of William McKinley describes how the Civil War hero, who preferred “The Major” above any other title he had in life, changed the arc of American history by running the first truly modern presidential campaign. As Rove explains, the 1896 political environment resembles that of today: an electorate transformed by a growing immigrant population, an uncertain economy disrupted by new technologies, growing income inequality, and political gridlock that kept the parties from resolving major issues. McKinley’s winning campaign found ways to address these challenges and reform his party, thereby creating a governing majority that dominated American politics for the next thirty-six years.

Much of what we think we know about the 1896 election is wrong.  This campaign was not led, as popular history holds, by wealthy Cleveland industrialist Mark Hanna. The strategist behind the campaign was McKinley himself, a particularly skilled practical politician and thoughtful visionary.  He, with the help of a thirty-something Chicago entrepreneur named Charles G. Dawes, ran the biggest, most expensive campaign in history. The story of the 1896 campaign is one of an impressive marshaling of resources, careful targeting, surprising outreach, skillful use of new technologies, big gambles, and, most important of all, an audacious strategy, and powerful, if not perilous, message.

Matched in the general election against the dynamic and charismatic Democrat William Jennings Bryan, McKinley took the riskier course of accentuating his large differences with Bryan and offering bold and controversial answers to the nation’s most pressing challenges. He succeeded because he knew he had to run a different kind of campaign. For example:

  • Knowing his party could only win if it grew beyond its base, he reached out to diverse ethnic groups, becoming the first Republican to openly seek the endorsement of Catholic leaders.
  • He was the first candidate in either party to appear before black audiences during the presidential primary season and openly campaign for black voting rights.
  • Running on the slogan “The People Against the Bosses,” McKinley also took on the machine men who dominated his own party.
  • He deployed campaign tactics still used today, including targeting voters with the best available technology.


  • Above all, his response to the nation’s most pressing issue—how to make a new, more global economy work for every American—won him the White House despite splitting his party. By sticking to his principles, he created a new GOP majority.


The story of McKinley’s presidential campaign is a compelling drama in its own right, but it also offers important—and urgent—lessons for today.



Karl Rove has been described by respected author and columnist Michael Barone in U.S. News & World Report as “…unique…no Presidential appointee has ever had such a strong influence on politics and policy, and none is likely to do so again anytime soon.” Washington Post columnist David Broder has called Karl a master political strategist whose “game has always been long term…and he plays it with an intensity and attention to detail that few can match.” Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard, has called Karl “the greatest political mind of his generation and probably of any generation. He knows history, understands the moods of the public, and is a visionary on matters of public policy.”

Before Karl became known as “The Architect” of President Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns, he was president of Karl Rove + Company, an Austin-based public affairs firm that worked for Republican candidates, non-partisan causes, and non-profit groups. His clients included over 75 Republican U.S. Senate, Congressional, and gubernatorial candidates in 24 states.

As a Fox News contributor, Karl provides a “genuine feel of inside knowledge,” says David Zurawik, Baltimore Sun television critic. Megan Garber, of the Columbia Journalism Review, says Karl has “focused his punditry on what he knows best: strategy.” Even the New York Times acknowledges that “Rove’s substantive contributions may now inspire a little work ethic among the celebrity talking heads who may be forced to bring to the news a little more data and a little less opinion, a recalibration that would be welcome to its devoted viewers.”

Karl writes a weekly op-ed for the Wall Street Journal and is the author of the New York Times Bestseller, Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight. He has written for various publications, including The Daily Beast, Financial Times, Forbes,, TIME, Newsweek, The Times, Washington Post, POLITICO, and The Weekly Standard.

A Colorado native, he attended the University of Utah, the University of Maryland-College Park, George Mason University, and the University of Texas at Austin.

Karl has taught graduate students at UT Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and undergraduates in a joint appointment from the Journalism and Government departments at the university. He was also a faculty member at the Salzburg Seminar.

He was previously a member of the Board of International Broadcasting, which oversaw the operations of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, and served on the White House Fellows regional selection panel. He was also a member of the Boards of Regents at Texas Women’s University and East Texas State University.

Karl now serves on the University of Texas Chancellor’s Council Executive Committee and on the Board of Trustees for Texas State History Museum Foundation. He is a member of the McDonald Observatory Board of Visitors and the Texas Philosophical Society. He was inducted into the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame in 2009 and the American Association of Political Consultants Hall of Fame in 2012.