Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1928

When the Republican convention in Kansas City began in the summer of 1928, the fifty-three-year-old Herbert Hoover was on the verge of winning his party's nomination for President. He had won primaries in California, Oregon, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Maryland. Among important Republican constituencies, he had the support of women, progressives, internationalists, the new business elite, and corporate interests. Party regulars grudgingly supported Hoover, but they neither liked nor trusted him. Hoover's nomination was assured when he received the endorsement of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, who controlled Pennsylvania's delegates.

The convention nominated Hoover on the first ballot, teaming him with Senate Majority Leader Charles Curtis of Kansas. The Republican platform promised continued prosperity with lower taxes, a protective tariff, opposition to farm subsidies, the creation of a new farm agency to assist cooperative marketing associations, and the vigorous enforcement of Prohibition. The party also proclaimed its commitment to delivering a "technocrat" known for his humanitarianism and efficiency to the White House. In his acceptance speech, Hoover promised "a final triumph over poverty"—words that would soon come to haunt him.

The four-term New York governor, Alfred E. Smith, a Catholic opponent of Prohibition (the common term for the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that banned the manufacture, sale, or transport of liquor), won the Democratic nomination on the first ballot. His "Protestant Prohibitionist" running mate, Senator Joseph G. Robinson of Arkansas, balanced Smith's "Wet (anti-prohibitionist) Catholic" stance. Democrats hoped that Smith could unify the party and defeat Hoover, something that few political pundits at the time considered even remotely possible. The Smith-Robinson ticket actually mirrored the divide in the party between southern, Protestant backers of Prohibition and northern, urban, often Catholic opponents of Prohibition. The Democratic platform downplayed the tariff issue and emphasized the party's support for public works projects, a federal farm program, and federal aid to education. It also promised to enforce the nation's laws, a nod to supporters of Prohibition who worried that Smith might try to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment.

Hoover ran a risk-free campaign, making only seven well-crafted radio speeches to the nation; he never even mentioned Al Smith by name. The Republicans portrayed Hoover as an efficient engineer in an era of technology, as a successful self-made man, as a skilled administrator in a new corporate world of international markets, and as a careful businessman with a vision for economic growth that would, in the words of one GOP campaign circular, put "a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage." Republicans also reminded Americans of Hoover's humanitarian work during World War I and in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Hoover the administrator, the humanitarian, and the engineer were all on display in the 1928 campaign film ï"Master of Emergencies," which often left its audiences awestruck and in tears. But perhaps Hoover's greatest advantage in 1928 was his association with the preceding two Republican administrations and their legacy of economic success.

Religion and Prohibition quickly emerged as the most volatile and energizing issues in the campaign. No Catholic had ever been elected President, a by-product of the long history of American anti-Catholic sentiment. Vicious rumors and openly hateful anti-Catholic rhetoric hit Smith hard and often in the months leading up to election day. Numerous Protestant preachers in rural areas delivered Sunday sermons warning their flocks that a vote for Smith was a vote for the Devil. Anti-Smith literature, distributed by the resurgent Ku Klux Klan (KKK), claimed that President Smith would take orders from the Pope, declare all Protestant children illegitimate, annul Protestant marriages, and establish Catholicism as the nation's official religion. When Smith addressed a massive rally in Oklahoma City on the subject of religious intolerance, fiery KKK crosses burned around the stadium and a hostile crowd jeered him as he spoke. The next evening, thousands filled the same stadium to hear an anti-Smith speech entitled, "Al Smith and the Forces of Hell."

A consistent critic of Prohibition as governor of New York, Smith took a stance on the Eighteenth Amendment that was politically dangerous both nationally and within the party. While the Democratic platform downplayed the issue, Smith brought it to the fore by telling Democrats at the convention that he wanted "fundamental changes" in Prohibition legislation; shortly thereafter, Smith called openly for Prohibition's repeal, angering Southern Democrats. At the same time, the Anti-Saloon League, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and other supporters of the temperance movement exploited Smith's anti-Prohibition politics, dubbing him "Al-coholic" Smith, spreading rumors about his own addiction to drink, and linking him with moral decline. A popular radio preacher put Smith in the same camp as "card playing, cocktail drinking, poodle dogs, divorces, novels, stuffy rooms, dancing, evolution, Clarence Darrow, nude art, prize-fighting, actors, greyhound racing, and modernism."

The Republicans swept the election in November. Hoover carried forty states, including Smith's New York, all the border states, and five traditionally Democratic states in the South. The popular vote gave a whopping 21,391,993 votes (58.2 percent) to Hoover compared to 15,016,169 votes (40.9 percent) to Smith. The electoral college tally was even more lopsided, 444 to 87. With 13 million more people voting in 1928 (57 percent of the electorate) than had turned out in 1924 (49 percent of the electorate), Smith won twice the number of voters who had supported the 1924 losing Democratic candidate, John W. Davis. Hoover, though, also made significant gains, tallying nearly 6 million more Republican votes than Coolidge had four years earlier. Smith's Catholicism and opposition to Prohibition hurt him, but the more decisive factor was that Hoover ran as the candidate of prosperity and economic growth.

The Campaign and Election of 1932

Much had changed politically for Hoover and the Republican Party by the time convention delegates assembled in Chicago in the summer of 1932. The Great Depression that struck during the "Great Engineer's" presidency, and his inability to do much about it, had changed the national mood and its political temper. The word "Hooverize," which in 1917 carried positive images in the public mind, had undergone a similar transformation; by 1932, "Hooverville" had come to represent the dirty shacks in which the unemployed and homeless now lived, with "Hoover Flags" denoting the turned-out pockets of men's trousers as they stood in bread lines. All the things about Hoover that had sounded positive notes during the 1920s rang off-key in 1932. Words like "rationalize," "efficiency," and "technocrat" spoke of heartlessness and a cold-minded concern with an industrial process that had devastated the nation. Hoover's political problems during his term—his repeated failures to muster congressional support for his policies—did not help his chances for re-election, either. Hoover's reputation waned further, and his political future darkened, after General MacArthur routed the Bonus Army from its camps in Washington, D.C., much to the horror of the American public. (See Domestic Affairs section for details.)

Few Republicans believed that Hoover could win in 1932, but the President was determined to defend himself. Both Hoover and Vice President Charles Curtis were renominated on the first ballot. No disruptive demonstrations, rowdy parades, or outbursts of applause colored the convention hall in Chicago. No pictures of Hoover or Curtis hung from its rafters. The Republican platform praised Hoover's programs, called for a balanced budget and a protective tariff, and urged repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment—a reversal of its 1928 stance on Prohibition. Nothing was said about trade associations, technology, or the promise of prosperity. A sense of gloom-and-doom filled the air.

The Democratic convention met in Chicago as well, but in an entirely different atmosphere. The party faithful and their leaders were certain that the 1932 presidential election would bring the first Democratic victory since Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the governor of New York and the man who had twice nominated Al Smith, held the lead among convention delegates. But Smith wanted to try again, and other Democrats, notably powerful House Speaker John Nance Garner of Texas, also sought the nomination. Roosevelt's floor managers managed to convince Garner and key supporters, such as California senator William McAdoo, to back Roosevelt's candidacy rather than let the convention deadlock. Garner acceded and Roosevelt won on the fourth ballot. Roosevelt then flew to Chicago to deliver his acceptance speech in person, a maneuver that defied tradition. It was a politically necessary one, however, because FDR needed to show the electorate that while his body had been ravaged by polio, he was still a vigorous and energetic leader. In his acceptance speech, Roosevelt pledged "a new deal for the American people" and was cheered wildly by the delegates.

Roosevelt's campaign was cautious, largely because he did not want to commit any gaffes which might draw attention away from Hoover's failings or the nation's immense troubles. He repeatedly returned to the phrase "New Deal" throughout the campaign, although he rarely offered details on the programs or policies he might pursue. Indeed, Roosevelt spoke in such generalities and exuded so much optimism that some commentators wondered if he understood the extraordinary challenges facing the nation. Roosevelt departed from this campaign strategy on September 25 in a major address at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. It was there that he outlined the governing philosophy behind his New Deal. The federal government, Roosevelt charged, must assume responsibility for the welfare of the nation. It must assist business and labor in the development of "an economic constitutional order" based upon a fair distribution of wealth, in which every working person would be guaranteed "the right to make a comfortable living."

Hoover delivered nine major addresses during the campaign, defending his record and attacking Roosevelt. The President blamed the Great Depression on the aftermath of World War I, and he argued that his anti-Depression measures had prevented the total collapse of the economy. Roosevelt's New Deal, he warned, would support an activist federal government whose centralized and coercive powers endangered traditional notions of "self-government" and individual liberty. Hoover's speeches, however, were dreary, laden with statistics and delivered as sermons. The President inspired few Americans, in stark contrast to Roosevelt's uplifting oratory. FDR responded by comparing Hoover's record to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: "Destruction, Delay, Despair, and Doubt."

More than 40 million voters went to the polls in 1932, a record number. They voted overwhelmingly for Roosevelt, who beat Hoover by 7 million votes and captured forty-two of the forty-eight states. Except for Pennsylvania, all the states Hoover won were in New England—a bedrock of GOP support. The Democrats won both houses of Congress by substantial majorities, as well. In the long term, the election marked the beginning of Democratic dominance in presidential elections and American politics. FDR's Democratic Party would win the next four presidential elections and its philosophy of "New Deal liberalism" would emerge as the nation's guiding political ideology. During this period of dominance, Democrats never shied away from reminding voters of Hoover's and the Republicans' failure to end the Depression. In the short term, though, FDR's victory removed the burden of leadership from Hoover; the Great Depression officially became Roosevelt's problem in March 1933.