Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1924

After a year in the office he inherited from Harding, Coolidge was ready to assume the presidency in his own right. Historically, vice presidents who had finished out their predecessors' terms did not seek the presidency in their own right; only Theodore Roosevelt, in 1904, had done so successfully. But Coolidge ably muscled out potential challengers, including automaker Henry Ford, for the 1924 Republican nomination. He had emerged unscathed from the Teapot Dome scandals that plagued the Harding administration; indeed, his investigations of the corruption, although faulted by some as half-hearted, bolstered his reputation as a man of simplicity and rectitude--precisely what the country seemed to be craving in the economically and culturally dynamic 1920s. Coolidge's team carefully stage-managed the Republican convention in Cleveland, Ohio, that summer, and it was a veritable coronation, presaging the frictionless affairs of the late 20th century.

"Silent Cal," as Coolidge was becoming known because of his disdain for making small talk at social affairs, hoped to balance the ticket with Senator William E. Borah of Ohio as his running mate. Borah was a firm isolationist from the Midwest and a strong progressive on the domestic front. When Borah declined the offer, the party turned to the colorful and charismatic Charles G. Dawes of Illinois--former aide to William McKinley, director of the newly created Bureau of the Budget under Harding, and the author of the Dawes Plan to ease Europe's post-World War I credit problems. Their Republican platform emphasized reducing taxes, collecting foreign debts, passing the protective tariff, opposing farm subsidies for crop prices, enacting the eight-hour workday, banning child labor, and passing a federal anti-lynching law.

Compared to the smooth Republican convention, which looked forward to the media-age spectacles, the Democrats' strife-ridden gathering in New York was a throwback to the heyday of party politics. Former Treasury Secretary William G. McAdoo of California--President Wilson's son-in-law--fought Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York for more than 100 ballots. McAdoo represented the interests of the West, the rural South, and "Drys," those who supported Prohibition. The aging William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate and still politically powerful, delivered a powerful convention speech voicing his support for McAdoo. On the other side, the New York political machine Tammany Hall, representatives from Eastern cities, and the "Wets"--those opposed to Prohibition--cheered with great enthusiasm when the young Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was attempting a comeback after being stricken with polio, electrified the convention in a lively nomination speech depicting Smith as the "Happy Warrior." Adding to the drama, the convention was suspended in respect for the death of Coolidge's son, Calvin, Jr., who had developed a blood blister playing tennis a week before and, in a time just before the discovery of penicillin, died precipitously of an infection.

For the next 100 ballots, the longest deadlock at any major party convention in U.S. history, neither McAdoo nor Smith could gain the necessary two-thirds majority. Finally, on the 103rd ballot, the convention nominated a compromise candidate, Wall Street lawyer John W. Davis of West Virginia. Davis had served as solicitor general and as ambassador to Britain under President Woodrow Wilson. In a nod to Bryan, the Democrats selected his brother, Governor Charles W. Bryan of Nebraska, as their vice presidential candidate. The Democratic platform favored a reduction in the tariff, a graduated income tax, farm relief with easier credit and farm subsidies for crop prices, independence for the Philippines, a national referendum on the League of Nations, strict enforcement of antitrust laws, and public works projects to reduce unemployment.

Given the general conservatism of both nominees, a number of discontented politicians reconstituted Theodore Roosevelt's old Progressive Party, the breakaway vehicle he had established in 1912, but it drew nowhere near the support TR had. With Senator Robert LaFollette, Jr., of Wisconsin and Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana on their ticket, they offered what was becoming an old-fashioned Progressive reform agenda, including action against industrial monopolies, public ownership of water resources and the national railroads, a substantial increase in the inheritance tax, an excess-profits tax debt relief for farmers, and government subsidies to support crop prices.

In the election campaign, the Republicans urged the nation to "Keep Cool with Coolidge," a popular slogan that reflected the public's sense of optimism, based on the strong economy and prospects of the endurance of peace in Europe. President Coolidge took advantage of the new medium of radio to reach millions with his campaign speeches, while the advertising executive Bruce Barton helped promote an appealing, homespun image of the President through interviews, magazine profiles, and the publication of his speeches. Davis waged an aggressive campaign, attacking the Republicans as the party of corruption and bravely denouncing the Ku Klux Klan where Coolidge would not, but he fared poorly outside the South. In the end, Coolidge won 54 percent of the vote compared to 28.8 percent for Davis and a healthy 16.6 percent for LaFollette. He compiled 382 electoral votes in 35 states.