For the Democrats, this "stolen election" became an issue for them to rally around, and the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives spent much of 1878 investigating it. Although they failed to turn up any incriminating evidence against their Republican opponents, it was a continuing sore point for them.
Having lost the 1876 election so narrowly, Tilden was seen as the front-runner for the party's nomination heading into 1880. Hayes had pledged not to run for a second term, leaving the path to the White House open in 1880. The Republican party was very divided, between the segment loyal to New York Senator Roscoe Conkling (known as the Stalwarts) and those loyal to Maine Senator James G. Blaine (nicknamed the "Half-Breeds"). This division in the Republican Party led many Democrats to believe that 1880 would be the year that they took back the White House.
Debate over tariffs was a significant issue of the day. During the Civil War, Congress raised protective tariffs significantly, in part to pay for the war, but also because high tariffs were popular in the North. A high tariff meant that foreign goods were more expensive, which made it easier for American businesses to sell goods domestically, and almost all the manufacturing was done in the north. Republicans supported high tariffs as a way to protect American jobs. Democrats generally considered high tariffs as making goods unnecessarily expensive and adding to the growing federal revenues unnecessarily.
Tilden had been a long time New York Democrat who was first elected to the New York State Assembly in 1846. Tilden followed former President and fellow New York Democrat Martin Van Buren to the 1848 Free Soil Party convention before returning to the Democratic party after the election. He remained with his party during the 1850s and when the Civil War began, he remained loyal to the Union and considered himself a War Democrat. He had been affiliated with Tammany Hall, the New York City political machine of William "Boss" Tweed, but the two men had a falling out. As Tammany's corruption became more rampant, Tilden took up the cause of reform. He formed a rival faction that captured control of the party and led the effort to uncover proof of Tammany's corruption and remove its men from office. Tweed was indicted and convicted as part of the Reform. Tilden was elected as Governor of New York in 1874. He ran as the Democratic candidate for President in 1876, losing to Hayes. He spent the next four years as the presumptive Democratic candidate in 1880 and in 1879, he declined to run for another term as governor and focused instead on building support for the 1880 presidential nomination.
For ten months beginning in May 1878, the Potter Committee, chaired by Democratic Congressman Clarkson Nott Potter of New York, investigated allegations of fraud and corruption in the states which had contested electoral votes in 1876. This was done with Tilden's urging, but this had an undesired effect on his candidacy. The committee exonerated Tilden of wrongdoing, but uncovered evidence that cast state election officials of both parties in an unfavorable light. This made many Democrats leery about his candidacy. In addition, Tilden's health was not good. Even so, Tilden's presumed ability to carry New York, combined with his political organization and personal fortune, made him a serious contender. As the New York delegation left for the national convention in Cincinnati, Tilden gave a letter to one of his chief supporters, Daniel Manning, suggesting that his health might force him to decline the nomination. The letter was vaguely worded, but it convinced the delegation to consider Tilden's candidacy to be at an end.
With Tilden out of the race, Senator Thomas F. Bayard of Delaware presented as a possible nominee. Bayard had represented his state in the United States Senate since 1869. He had been a vocal opponent of the Republican majority's Reconstruction plan, and he had a reputation for honesty. At the 1876 convention, Bayard had placed fifth in the balloting, and supported Tilden in the general election, speaking on his behalf around the country. The political friendship between the two quickly soured after the 1876 election because Bayard supported the Electoral Commission and Tilden opposed it. Bayard believed the commission was the best alternative to civil war, and served as one of the Democratic members. Tilden took this as a personal betrayal.
Since that election, Bayard worked to build support for another run at the nomination. He and Tilden competed for support among Eastern conservatives because of their support for the gold standard. He believed he could attract support in the South because of his support in the Senate of pro-Southern conservative policies. But in February 1880, the New York Sun, a newspaper friendly to Tilden, published a transcript of a speech Bayard made in Dover, Delaware in 1861, in which he urged that the South be permitted to withdraw from the Union in peace. While this gained some support for Bayard in the south, it weakened his chances generally, as many feared that a former Peace Democrat would never be acceptable to Northerners.
Although Bayard was considered the front runner going into the convention, former General Winfield Scott Hancock became an attractive alternative for many Democrats. He believed in the Democratic Party's principles of states' rights and limited government, but his anti-secessionist credentials were unimpeachable. He was a native of Pennsylvania, Hancock graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1844 and began a forty-year career as a soldier. He served with distinction in the Mexican–American War and in the antebellum peacetime army. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Hancock remained loyal to the Union. He was promoted to brevet brigadier general in 1861 and placed in command of a brigade in the Army of the Potomac. He commanded in the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, and at the Battle of Antietam, where he led a division in the Union victory and was promoted to major general. At the Battle of Gettysburg he organized the scattered troops and was wounded on the third day as his troops turned back Pickett's Charge.
Since 1864, Hancock had been a perennial candidate mentioned at Democratic Party conventions. He served as military governor of Louisiana and Texas in 1867, and he had won the respect of the white conservative population by issuing his General Order Number 40, in which he stated that if the residents of the district conducted themselves peacefully and the civilian officials performed their duties, then "the the civil administration resume its natural and rightful dominion." At the 1868 convention, he finished as high as second place in some rounds of balloting. In 1876, Hancock again attracted considerable support, but never finished higher than third place at that year's convention. In 1880, the New Orleans Picayune ran an editorial that called for Hancock's nomination. As Tilden and Bayard lost support among Democratic voters, Hancock's prospective nomination gained momentum.
Several other candidates arrived in Cincinnati with delegates pledged to them. These included former Representative Henry B. Payne, an Ohio millionaire, who had attracted a number of former Tilden supporters. Payne was a corporate lawyer who was relatively unknown outside of Ohio. In April 1880, the New York Star published a report that Tilden had instructed some of his supporters to back Payne for the presidency. Tilden never confirmed the rumor, but after his letter of June 1880 to the New York delegation, many of his supporters considered Payne as their candidate. Payne, like Bayard, had served on the Electoral Commission of 1876, but had managed to keep Tilden's friendship.
Payne's fellow Ohioan, Senator Allen G. Thurman, controlled their home state's delegation. He had his own presidential aspirations but he, like Bayard, had earned Tilden's contempt for serving on the Electoral Commission. Another potential candidate was Samuel J. Randall, a congressman from Philadelphia. Randall supported high tariffs to protect American industry and pressed for legislation to reduce the power of monopolies. He now hoped for the support of the former Tilden delegates.
Former Governor Thomas A. Hendricks of Indiana, Tilden's 1876 running mate, also sought the previous nominee's support. He came from a crucial swing state that the Democrats had narrowly carried in 1876 and had some support in the Midwestern states.
William Ralls Morrison of Illinois had served in Congress since 1873 also had his eyes on the nomination prize, bit he commanded little support outside his home state, and was seen as only a favorite son. Justice Stephen Johnson Field of the United States Supreme Court was better known, but also had little backing.
The delegates assembled on June 22, 1880 at Cincinnati's Music Hall. William Henry Barnum of Connecticut, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, called the convention to order at 12:38 p.m. and George Hoadly, a Tilden associate and future governor of Ohio, was elected temporary chairman. At the start of the second day, June 23, the Committee on Credentials had to rule on delegate disputes in Massachusetts and New York, the latter being a contest between Tammany Hall and Tilden's delegation. Tammany lost that battle.
During the nomination speeches, one of the speakers was Senator Wade Hampton III of South Carolina, a former Confederate general, who said of Hancock, "we of the South would feel safe in his hands", but said that Bayard was his choice "because we believe he is the strongest man".
On the first ballot the delegates had scattered their ballots to a variety of candidates, with no one close to the required two-thirds majority for nomination (which at this convention amounted to 492 votes). Hancock led with 171 votes, followed by Bayard, with 158½. These two were far ahead of the rest of the pack. Payne was third with 81. The delegates voted to adjourn for the day, hoping for off-site negotiations that would influence the next day's ballot. When the delegates assembled the next day, June 24, to resume the balloting, Rufus Wheeler Peckham of the New York delegation produced Tilden's letter and read it to the crowd. Peckham announced that, with Tilden's withdrawal, New York now supported Samuel J. Randall. On the second ballot, more than one hundred delegates followed Peckham in voting for Randall, boosting his total to 128½, putting Bayard in third place with 112. Hancock had gained strength and now had 320 delegates. This led to a shifting of votes and when enough changed their vote to give Hancock the needed tally for a majority, the convention ultimately agreed to make the vote unanimous. Even Tammany Hall's leader, John Kelly, pledged his faction's loyalty to the nominee, saying, "Let us unite as a band of brothers and look upon each other kindly and favorably."
Susan B. Anthony later addressed the convention with a plea for women's suffrage, but the delegates took no action, and moved on to the platform. They then nominated William Hayden English, a banker and former representative from Indiana, to be Hancock's running mate.
Keeping with the custom at the time, neither candidate campaigned personally. Hancock stayed at his post at Fort Columbus on Governors Island, in New York Harbor and met with visitors there. Both parties focused on their candidates rather than the issues. Democratic newspapers attacked the Republican nominee, James A. Garfield of Ohio, over rumors of corruption in the Crédit Mobilier scandal while Republicans characterized Hancock as uninformed on the issues. Both parties knew that, with the end of Reconstruction, the South would be solid for Hancock, netting 137 electoral votes of the 185 needed for victory. Democrats focused on New York (with 35 electoral votes) and Indiana (with 15) as two of their main targets, but also looked to New Jersey and to some of the mid-western states.
Republicans used the tactic of "waving the bloody shirt". They told voters in the north that if the Democratic Party was elected, they would reverse the gains earned in the Civil War with the blood of union soldiers, they would dishonor Union veterans, and would pay Confederate veterans pensions out of the federal treasury. By this point however, fifteen years had passed since the end of the war, and Union generals were at the head of both tickets, so this tactic was less effective than it had been in the past.
As the campaign neared the finish line, the Republicans changed tactics and addressed the issue of the tariff. The Democratic platform had called for a tariff for revenue only. Republicans told Northern workers that if Hancock won the election, the would lose the tariff protection that kept them in good jobs. Hancock made matters worse for himself when, while attempting to appear to be moderate on the issue, he said "the tariff question is a local question". The answer played into the Republicans' strategy of portraying hancock as someone how was ignorant of the issues and not smart enough to be President.
This change in strategy may have saved the day for Garfield and the Republicans. Hewer than two thousand votes (out of almost nine million cast) separated the two candidates, but in the Electoral College, Garfield scored a victory over Hancock, 214 to 155. Garfield received 4,446,158 votes (48.3%) compared to 4,444,260 (48.3%) for Hancock. After the election, Hancock remained on duty as commander of the US Army's Division of the Atlantic. He attended Garfield's inauguration and served loyally under him and under Garfield's successor, Chester Alan Arthur.