Lincoln's chances for reelection appeared dim for much of 1864. No president had won a second term since Andrew Jackson more than 30 years ago. More importantly, Lincoln was weakened by widespread criticism of his handling of the war. The Union had suffered a long string of disappointments and many faulted the president's strategy. Further, conservative forces in the North were outraged by the Emancipation Proclamation and feared its impact on the future of society.
Much maneuvering occurred in the Republican Party prior to the convention because of Lincoln's apparent vulnerability. Various names were advanced as presidential possibilities:
General Benjamin F. Butler was thought to be popular with the War Democrats
Vice President Hannibal Hamlin enjoyed strength among the growing ranks of Radical Republicans
General U.S. Grant received a newspaper endorsement
Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase had supporters among the extreme abolitionists and other Radical Republicans.
All of these early possible candidates disavowed interest in advance of the convention. However, the strident antislavery forces coalesced around the candidacy of John C. Frémont, a bitter foe of Lincoln. The president had twice dismissed Frémont from military commands and had reversed his order to free the slaves in Missouri in 1861. These antislavery forces held an early convention in Cleveland and nominated Frémont.
The regular Republican Party met in Baltimore and used the name National Unity Party in the hope of attracting War Democrats. Lincoln was selected on the first ballot and offered no preference for a running mate. The convention chose Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, a seemingly attractive candidate thanks to his Southerner and War Democrat background. The platform promised to prosecute the war effort until the Confederacy's "unconditional surrender."
The Democrats adopted a platform that called for a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement with the South. They gave their nomination to George B. McClellan, who promptly repudiated the platform and simply pledged to conduct the war more skillfully than Lincoln.
During the campaign, Frémont relinquished his bid, fearing that he would split the Republican vote and enable the Democrats to win. The turning point came in early September with Sherman's capture of Atlanta, a victory that lifted spirits throughout the North and revitalized the Lincoln campaign. The Republicans warned the voters, "Don't change horses in the middle of the stream." Also, leaving little to chance, federal officials arranged liberal furloughs for Union soldiers a source of significant support for Lincoln.
McClellan managed to capture 45 percent of the popular vote, certainly a respectable showing, but the electoral tally was a landslide for Lincoln.