Electing FDR: The New Deal Campaign of 1932
By Donald A. Ritchie
University Press of Kansas
Lawrence, KS, 2007
In late 2007 I wrote a series of three essays (here, here and here) examining the parallels between the early indicators in this election cycle and the Democratic landslide of 1932. In those previous essays I examined long-term demographic and voting trends, the number of seats being defended by the Republicans and the overwhelming financial, operational, strategic and polling advantages of the Democrats, and the tremendous unpopularity of George W. Bush and the Republican party.
In the months since, the underlying weaknesses of the Republicans have grown more apparent. The National Republican Congressional Committee has remained broke and is mired in an embezzlement scandal that could leave it unable to borrow money to protect their dozens of endangered incumbents or to defend Republican-held open seats. The NRCC's Senate counterparts aren't in much better shape, with several Republican-held seats like those in Virginia, New Hampshire and New Mexico appearing to be already settled contests, and with probably ten or more remaining Republican seats potentially vulnerable, all while the DSCC has a roughly 2-1 cash advantage.
Last November and December few would have predicted that it would not be until June that the Democratic nomination was finally settled. After polling roughly even with Republican nominee John McCain, since Hillary Clinton conceded the nomination Barack Obama has surged to solid leads in many of the previously contested battleground states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, and has polled exceedingly well in many other states that haven't been competitive for Democrats since 1996, or in some cases 1976 or even 1964.
History doesn't repeat itself. While there is great value in many of the writings of advocates of a cyclical view of history, such as Giambattista Vico, Arnold Toynbee and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr (whose works include the Pulitizer-prize winning The Crisis of the Old Order 1919-1933: The Age of Roosevelt), few historians accept the notion that history repeats itself. But Mark Twain was on to something when he quipped that "history doesn't repeat itself...but it rhymes."
Donald A. Ritchie's Electing FDR: The New Deal Election of 1932 would be a worthy read even were it not for the compelling parallels one finds in it from the perspective of this particular campaign season. Ritchie, an associate historian at the U.S. Senate Historical Office, has a deft touch for the compelling anecdote and story, and keeps the narrative moving nicely. He introduces the main and secondary characters with enough detail and context that we can understand their actions and motivations, but with enough brevity and economy that the details don't slow down the reader.
Ritchie knows the social, economic and intellectual history of the era, and does an excellent job of giving the broader cultural and social background in which the campaign took place. And his descriptions of the hard working, conscientious but humorless Herbert Hoover and the ebullient FDR, once seen as a featherweight but whose struggle with polio at age 39 led him to develop tremendous fortitude and empathy with those in danger of being beaten down in their own struggles, enliven the book. Ritchie's portraits of Hoover and Roosevelt make it seem obvious that a cabbie in Detroit could convey this impression to a reporter:
I tell you, lady, the day Roosevelt is elected will be a national holiday—like Armistice Day, you know. I figure that if we get rid of Old Gloom and put in a feller that can laugh and act human, the Depression will be half over.
The cabbie was right. The economic toll of the Depression continued through FDR's first two terms, and didn't really lift until the country was mobilized for the struggle against fascism. But half the battle against the depression was against fear and despair, and the country began righting itself the moment FDR, in his first inaugural address, told Americans that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
But what about those parallels between 1932 and 2008? Yes, the country and the world face tremendous challenges, probably the most dire since the Second World War. Things are not as bad as when FDR ran. But the years before the stock market crash of 1929 have many similarities to our recent past. The Republicans were in full control of the government, and anti-regulatory, pro-business policies prevailed. While unemployment was low, there was a yawning gap in wealth and income between the rich and poor. Rural communities were distressed. The economy was undergoing a major transformation. Organized labor was weakened and under assault. Though economic problems were increasing, it was cultural issues, most of all prohibition, that dominated elections.
Hoover came in to office with a reputation very different from that of George W. Bush. Hoover was possibly America's most admired and respected administrator. He was a self-made man who had excelled in the first class at Stanford University, became a mining executive, traveled the world and made a fortune. During World War I he was dispatched by Woodrow Wilson to oversee food relief programs in Europe, and he performed brilliantly. In 1920 he was even sought out as a possible Democratic nominee for President.
That year former assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt ran on the losing Democratic ticket. He and Hoover had become friends in Washington DC during the war, and they admired each other. But Hoover joined the Republicans, and spent the 1920's as the Secretary of Commerce. He largely avoided political rancor, but built up political chits, and in 1928 won the Republican presidential nomination and defeated New York's Catholic Governor Al Smith for the Presidency.
Roosevelt spent much of the 1920's rehabilitating himself from polio, which he contracted in 1921. By 1928, however, he was recruited, somewhat reluctantly, to run for Governor of New York, in part to bolster the ticket in New York for Smith's presidential campaign. Smith lost his home state, but Roosevelt eked out a narrow win.
By 1932, the good times and emphasis in campaigns on divisive social issues were gone. Unemployment, 3.2% when Hoover took office, was at 23.6%. We have severe problems in our banking and financial sectors today, but nothing like what faced the country in 1932. On the very day the Democratic convention started in Chicago, 25 of that city's banks were forced to close.
In 1930, as the Depression gained strength, the Democrats crushed the Republicans in the mid-term elections. Back then Congress didn't convene until a year after the elections. During the interim between the elections in November of 1930 and the seating of Congress in early 1932, 13 members of Congress died, and Democrats won almost every one of the special elections, including some in previously solidly Republican districts. In total, by the time Congress was seated, Democrats had netted a 54 seat gain in the House, shifting the chamber from solidly Republican to a Democratic advantage of 3 seats.
In the Senate, Democrats picked up 8 seats. It was barely less than they needed to gain control, but thinking that a solidly Democratic congress that couldn't accomplish anything in the face of Presidential obstruction would hurt the Democrats more than his party, Hoover urged the Senate Republicans to let the Democrats organize the chamber.
That Congress, in large part because of Presidential vetos, accomplished very little. Unlike today, there were progressive Republicans like George Norris of Nebraska and William Borah of Idaho. Nevertheless, like today, an obstructionist President prevented a narrow Democratic majority from many accomplishments.
Roosevelt, easily reelected in 1930 on the strength of his bold policies as governor as much as the overall Democratic wave, became the favorite for the nomination. However, the other candidates, including his one-time ally Al Smith, had enough support to prevent Roosevelt from securing the nomination. Roosevelt assembled a team of newcomers, while the campaigns of his rivals were stacked with politicos who had been involved in previous presidential campaigns. At a time when primaries meant very, very little—fewer than 5% or so of the delegates were awarded on the basis of primary results—Roosevelt nonetheless dispatched one of his chief aids to travel the country and build on the support of Democratic leaders with whom Roosevelt had continued correspondence ever since his 1920 VP candidacy, and he contested every primary. Despite losing most of the biggest or mostly heavily Democratic states, such as Illinois, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, Roosevelt performed quite well, especially in states not traditionally thought to be bastions of Democratic support or likely Democratic wins in a general election.
Roosevelt's team went to the Chicago convention with the most support, but far from the total needed for the nomination. In 1924 the convention required over a hundred ballots before reaching agreement. FDR's team expected to be able to hold and maybe grow their lead through four. If all of the candidates arrayed against him could have thrown their collective support behind one of their group, that man would have won the nomination. But with the assistance of Joseph Kennedy—father of John, Robert and Teddy Kennedy—Roosevelt's team was able to negotiate a deal with the Speaker of the House, Texan John Nance Garner, for the support his delegates who controlled the delegations from Texas and California.
The Democrats came out of the convention only moderately excited by Roosevelt. Some delegates, supporters mostly of Al Smith, declared that Roosevelt would not be able to win Catholic voters in November. But the delegates were unified in support for repealing prohibition.
Shortly after gaining the nomination, Roosevelt disappointed many of his most liberal supporters by renouncing his support for the League of Nations. In the wake of World War I, the country was strongly isolationist. While Roosevelt personally supported the League, Roosevelt announced he would not seek US entry in to the league, declaring there was "a difference between ideals and the methods of obtaining them."
Throughout the campaign Roosevelt provided few specifics on policy. He was widely criticized by intellectuals, writers and party elites for the vagueness of his proposals and the lack of bold pronouncements in his campaign. He did, however, have his "brain trust" of professors, mostly from Columbia, who were key in drafting his speeches in which he advocated for government intervention in the economy and a more vigorous effort to move the country forward than that advocated by Hoover. But Roosevelt kept many of his more conservative financial backers molified by advocating a balanced budget, and he eschewed many specifics. As he told his brain trusters, he was running a campaign and not an adult education program, and that in office he could educate the public and harness their support for his initiative, but as a candidate he "had to accept people's prejudices and turn them to good use."
Operationally FDR's campaign was far more bold and inventive than Hoover's. FDR had a deep, resonant voice and an orator's gift. Hoover was uncomfortable with speaking on the radio, and avoided that new technology, while FDR and his campaign embraced it. FDR took every opportunity available to speak on the radio, while Hoover conceded that new medium to the Democrat. And with Wall Street comparatively broke and the activist base split over prohibition between the pro-repeal "wets" and the pro-prohibition "dry's," the Republican party was short on money and enthusiasm.
Along with the special election wins in the congressional races, the September results in Maine presaged the huge win. Back then Maine voted for other offices in September, with only the presidency contested in November. Despite being one of the most Republican states in the union, that September Democrats stomped the Republicans, winning the Governorship and two of the state's three Congressional seats.
Polio decimated Roosevelt's legs, but the crushing work and failures of his presidency aged Hoover tremendously. Despite a whisper campaign about FDR's disability—plenty of rumors circulated that he had been infected with syphilis—most who saw him viewed him as the epitome of vigor in comparison with the pallid and defeated Hoover. Roosevelt developed a powerful upper body from pulling and hoisting himself around, and on campaign stops, his auto or train car was fitted with a bar on which he would rise and stead himself, enabling him to stand. He had a powerful voice, was relatively young at only 50, and he was campaigning on the belief that what the country needed most was change. The contrast was stark. Hoover was old and represented the past. Roosevelt was the future.
On election day, Roosevelt won every state but Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. He garnered 57% of the vote--less than future landslide wins by Roosevelt in 1936, Johnson in 1964, Nixon in 1972 and Reagan in 1984--and Democrats netted another 99 seats in the House and 14 in the Senate.
Obviously there are many differences between Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama. I will not burden Obama with comparisons with one of our three greatest presidents, and the greatest Democrat to ever hold the office. It's also important to recognize the difference between the horrific conditions of 1932 versus the bad but not as obviously dire circumstances facing us today. But just as there are striking parallels between the underlying electoral conditions and demographic trends that I examined in my previous essays, the contrasts between our current candidates and the conduct of their campaigns have many parallels with those of 1932.
Will Barack Obama lead Democrats to the overwhelming win that FDR led in 1932? While the portents are good, it's still too early to tell. Besides, we need to not only predict our history, we need to work smart and work hard to create the history we desire. But one cannot read Ritchie's book in 2008 and not hear words and patterns that, while not the exact as what we hear today, certainly rhyme.