Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1932

Political observers in the early 1930s were of decidedly mixed opinion about the possible presidential candidacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many leaders of the Democratic Party saw in Roosevelt an attractive mixture of experience (as governor of New York and as a former vice presidential candidate) and appeal (the Roosevelt name itself, which immediately associated FDR with his remote cousin, former President Theodore Roosevelt.)

FDR's record as governor of New York—and specifically his laudable, if initially conservative, efforts to combat the effects of the depression in his own state—only reinforced his place as the leading Democratic contender for the 1932 presidential nomination. Under the watchful eyes of his political advisers Louis Howe and James Farley, FDR patiently garnered support from Democrats around the country, but especially in the South and the West. In preparation for his presidential bid, Roosevelt consulted a group of college professors, dubbed the "Brains Trust" (later shortened to the "Brain Trust"), for policy advice.

Other observers, however, were not so sanguine about his abilities or chances. Walter Lippmann, the dean of political commentators and a shaper of public opinion, observed acidly of Roosevelt: "He is a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president." FDR's Democratic Party, moreover, was both factionalized and ideologically splintered. Several other candidates sought the nomination, including Speaker of the House John Nance Garner of Texas (who found support in the west) and the party's 1928 candidate, Alfred Smith (who ran strong in the urban northeast). The party further split on two key social issues: Catholicism and prohibition. Smith was a Catholic and wanted to end prohibition, which pleased Democrats in the Northeast, but angered those in the South and West.

In 1932, though, the key issue was the Great Depression, not Catholicism or prohibition, which gave Democrats a great opportunity to take the White House back from the Republicans. While FDR did not enter the Democratic convention in Chicago with the necessary two-thirds of the delegates, he managed to secure them after promising Garner the vice-presidential nomination. FDR then broke with tradition and flew to Chicago by airplane to accept the nomination in person, promising delegates "a new deal for the American people." FDR's decision to go to Chicago was politically necessary: he needed to demonstrate to the country that even though his body had been ravaged by polio, he was robust, strong, and energetic.

Roosevelt's campaign for president was necessarily cautious. His opponent, President Herbert Hoover, was so unpopular that FDR's main strategy was not to commit any gaffes that might take the public's attention away from Hoover's inadequacies and the nation's troubles. FDR traveled around the country attacking Hoover and promising better days ahead, but often without referring to any specific programs or policies. Roosevelt was so genial—and his prescriptions for the country so bland—that some commentators questioned his capabilities and his grasp of the serious challenges confronting the United States.

On occasion, though, FDR hinted at the shape of the New Deal to come. FDR told Americans that only by working together could the nation overcome the economic crisis, a sharp contrast to Hoover's paeans to American individualism in the face of the depression. In a speech in San Francisco, FDR outlined the expansive role that the federal government should play in resuscitating the economy, in easing the burden of the suffering, and in insuring that all Americans had an opportunity to lead successful and rewarding lives.

The outcome of the 1932 presidential contest between Roosevelt and Hoover was never greatly in doubt. Dispirited Americans swept the fifty-year-old FDR into office in a landslide in both the popular and electoral college votes. Voters also extended their approval of FDR to his party, giving Democrats substantial majorities in both houses of Congress. These congressional majorities would prove vital in Roosevelt's first year in office.

The Campaign and Election of 1936

FDR entered the 1936 election with a strong, but not invincible, hand. The economy remained sluggish and eight million Americans still were without jobs. Critics from various points on the political spectrum—such as Father Coughlin and Dr. Francis Townsend—had spent much of the previous two years attacking the President. (They supported Representative William Lemke of the newly formed Union Party in the 1936 election.) Likewise, by 1936 FDR had lost most of the backing he once held in the business community because of his support for the Wagner Act and the Social Security Act.

Republicans, though, had few plausible candidates to challenge FDR in 1936. They settled on Alfred "Alf" Landon, a two-term governor of Kansas who was the only Republican governor to win reelection in 1934. Nominated on the first ballot at the Republican convention in Cleveland, Landon was a moderate conservative—and notoriously lackluster public speaker—who the party hoped could take votes from FDR in the rural Midwest. Unfortunately for Landon, his moderation was often drowned out during the campaign by the conservative clamor emanating from the Republican Party, as well as from his running mate, Chicago publisher Frank Knox.

Roosevelt seemed to relish the attacks of Republicans, maintaining that he and his New Deal protected the average American against the predations of the rich and powerful, Referring to "business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking," FDR crowed, "Never before have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred." Roosevelt's supporters believed their candidate understood and sympathized with them. As one worker put it in 1936, Roosevelt "is the first man in the White House to understand that my boss is a son of a (expletive.)" FDR won the election in a walk, amassing huge majorities in the popular vote and in the Electoral College.

What the 1936 election made most clear was that because of FDR and the New Deal, the Democratic Party was now the majority party in the nation. Roosevelt had put together what came to be called the "New Deal Coalition," an alliance of voters from different regions of the country and from racial, religious and ethnic groups. The coalition combined southern Protestants, northern Jews, Catholics and blacks from urban areas, labor union members, small farmers in the middle west and Plains states, and liberals and radicals. This diverse group, with some minor alterations, would power the Democrats for the next thirty years—and it was Roosevelt who put it together.

The Campaign and Election of 1940

In 1940, Roosevelt decided to run for an unprecedented third term, breaking the tradition set by George Washington that limited Presidents to eight years in office. FDR had been coy about his future for most of his second term, but finally told confidantes that he would run only if the situation in Europe deteriorated further and his fellow Democrats drafted him as their candidate. Nazi Germany's successful invasion of Western Europe and defeat of France in the spring of 1940 took care of the former condition; FDR's political operatives, especially Chicago mayor Ed Kelly, arranged for the latter. Not all Democrats, most notably long-time political adviser James Farley and Vice President John Garner, were pleased with FDR's decision to break from Washington's precedent. And conservative southern Democrats strenuously objected to FDR's vice presidential choice, Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace, a former progressive Republican, but now a staunch liberal New Dealer.

Republicans chose Wendell L. Willkie of Indiana, a corporate lawyer and president of a utility company, as their candidate. It was an unconventional choice. Willkie had voted for FDR in 1932 and had been a Democrat until 1938. While he opposed FDR's public power policies, especially the TVA, Willkie actually supported much of the New Deal's domestic legislation and was an internationalist in foreign affairs—controversial positions in a party with its share of vigorous New Deal opponents and isolationists. In many respects, Willkie was just the type of liberal Republican that FDR wanted to lure into the Democratic Party

During the initial weeks of the election season, FDR looked strong even though he campaigned only from the White House. Willkie proved lackluster on the stump and he seemed to agree with much of FDR's domestic and foreign agenda. In late September, though, Willkie began to tighten the race, largely by charging that if FDR won a third term, "you may expect that we will be at war." Roosevelt countered that he would not send Americans to fight in "any foreign war." Over its last month, the campaign degenerated into a series of outrageous accusations and mud-slinging, if not by the two candidates themselves then by their respective parties. On election day, FDR won 55 percent of the popular vote and the electoral votes of thirty-eight states. Willkie gained only ten states, but for Republicans even this was an improvement over their dismal showing in 1936.

The Campaign and Election of 1944

In 1944, in the midst of war, Roosevelt made it known to fellow Democrats that he was willing to run for a fourth term. Democrats, even conservative southerners who had long been suspicious of FDR's liberalism, backed Roosevelt as their party's best chance for victory. FDR received all but 87 of the votes of the 1,075 delegates at the Democratic National Convention. The real intrigue came with the Democratic nomination for vice president. FDR decided against running with his current vice president, the extremely liberal Henry Wallace, fearing that Wallace's politics would open a rift in the party between liberals (concentrated in the northeast) and conservatives (largely hailing from the south.) Instead, Senator Harry Truman of Missouri, who had the backing of the south, the big-city bosses in the party, and at least the tacit approval of FDR, took the vice-presidential nomination.

Republicans nominated Thomas Dewey, the popular governor of New York State, chosen with only one Republican delegate voting against him. Dewey ran as a moderate Republican, promising not to undo the social and economic reforms of the New Deal, but instead to make them more efficient and effective. Dewey, like Willkie four years earlier, was an internationalist in foreign affairs, voicing support for a postwar United Nations. One of Dewey's most effective gambits was to raise discreetly the age issue. He assailed the President as a "tired old man" with "tired old men" in his cabinet, pointedly suggesting that the President's lack of vigor had produced a less than vigorous economic recovery.

FDR, as most observers could see from his weight loss and haggard appearance, was a tired man in 1944. But upon entering the campaign in earnest in late September, 1944, Roosevelt displayed enough passion and fight to allay most concerns and to deflect Republican attacks. With the war still raging, he urged voters not to "change horses in mid-stream." Just as important, he showed some of his famous campaign fire. In a classic speech before the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, FDR belittled the Republican attacks on him. Recalling the charges from a Minnesota congressman who accused FDR of sending a battleship to Alaska to retrieve his dog Fala, FDR nearly chortled "These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or my sons. No, not content with that they now include my little dog Fala. Wll, of course, I don't resent attacks, and my family don't resent attacks, but Fala does resent them." With his audience abuzz, FDR delivered his punch-line: "I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself . . . But I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog."

On election day, voters returned Roosevelt to the White House. He garnered almost 54 percent of the popular vote—to Dewey's 46 percent—and won the Electoral College by a count of 432 to 99. Even though the Republicans had improved their totals in both the popular and electoral votes, they could not unseat FDR.