The main issue of this election was money -- whether the US would stick to a strict gold standard or whether it would use silver as the basis for the dollar as well.
The Democrats were for using silver. This is because that would have made money cheaper, relatively speaking. When money gets cheaper (inflation) people who are in debt benefit. Many of the Democrats' supporters were farmers who were in debt.
This campaign became famous because William Jennings Bryan (the Democratic candidate) gave his "Cross of Gold" speech. In that speech, he accused the Republicans of wanting to "crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."
Although this made the Democrats popular with farmers, they were unable to win the election.
The election of 1896, fueled by emotional debates over the silver issue, split party ranks across the nation. Pro-silver Republicans swung behind Bryan, while pro-gold Democrats, called "gold bugs" or National Democrats, nominated their own candidate. The Republican aspirant, William McKinley, relied upon his experience, his reputation for honesty and good judgment, his party's wealth, and the skillful management of Mark Hanna. Moreover, the depression worked to the advantage of the party out of power.
Bryan, a powerful orator, was handicapped by his youth, his relative inexperience, and the defection of the gold Democrats. He nevertheless conducted a vigorous campaign, traveling over eighteen thousand miles and delivering over six hundred speeches. On election day, McKinley decisively defeated Bryan.
As Americans prepared for the election of 1896, many Westerners, including Henry Teller of Colorado, left the Republican party. This election was the most significant since Lincoln. The Republicans chose William McKinley of Ohio. He sponsored the 1890 Wilson-Gorman Tariff bill and had been a major in the Civil War. He was the creation of Marcus Hanna, who believed it was the government’s function to aid business. McKinley declared for the gold standard, as he believed, like Hamilton, that prosperity “trickled down” to the masses.
The Democrats met in Chicago with the silverites in command. William Jennings Bryan, who was only thirty-six years old, took the platform, making the most famous speech of his career. He stated: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” The speech touched off a demonstration lasting close to an hour, during which delegates shouted, cheered, and wept. The delegates carried Bryan around on their shoulders in triumph, and waved banners on which were scribbled the words, “No Crown of Thorns! No Cross of Gold!”
The presidential election continued the realignment begun in the congressional elections of 1894. Many Americans, especially in the South and West, believed that the free coinage of silver, by boosting the money supply, would end the depression. Beyond that reasoning, silver was a symbol of America and of the common people. The Republicans nominated William McKinley, a senator from Ohio, in 1896 and adopted a platform promising to go back to the gold standard, which would bring prosperity. The Democrats split over the silver issue, but the majority of the delegates at the national convention favored free silver and nominated William Jennings Bryan, who electrified the audience with his “Cross of Gold” speech. The Populist party also endorsed Bryan, who actively campaigned for president. Bryan offered a return to an older, rural, religious America. McKinley defended the advancing urban, industrial society. The election was a clear victory for McKinley and an utter rout of the Populist party, which vanished after 1896.