Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1920

No one expected Warren G. Harding to gain the Republican nomination for President when he arrived at the Chicago convention in 1920. No one, that is, except his close friend and political manager, Harry Daugherty, the wealthy corporate lawyer and lobbyist from Ohio. Daugherty believed that none of the front-runners would carry the nomination on the first ballots. Harding was known to all of them, had played poker with most of them, and was "right" on every important issue. He represented a critically important state in the election, had not opposed prohibition or suffrage, and had no political enemies. Finally, with his distinguished "presidential" profile, he was among the best-looking politicians in the nation—a sure plus, believed his friends, in an election when millions of women would vote for the first time in the nation's history.

The party leaders gave Harding the nomination on the tenth ballot. The popular governor of Massachusetts, Calvin Coolidge, was nominated for vice president. Their Republican platform condemned the Wilson administration for its handling of World War I and opposed the League of Nations. On trade and immigration, Harding and Coolidge (who would succeed Harding in office) advocated a higher protective tariff and supported new immigration requirements. Overall, they promised to return the nation to more normal times—like those prior to all the out of control drives for reform that had begun in the 1890s.

The Democrats, who met in San Francisco, also turned to an Ohio newspaperman, James M. Cox, a liberal Democrat who had served as the progressive governor of the state during the Wilson years. But they were hardly united, and it took forty-four ballots to put him over the top. The second spot on the ticket went to the popular Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York, who would become the nation's thirty-second President. The Democratic nominees reflected the party's determination to continue Woodrow Wilson's progressive agenda at home and idealistic involvement abroad.

Returning to the political strategy associated with the pre-Roosevelt days, Harding conducted a front-porch campaign in which he spoke in overused clich�s (urging a "return to normalcy" after the hardships of the world war and the struggle over the League of Nations) to reporters and visitors from his home in Marion. Cox traveled twenty-two thousand miles making over four hundred speeches. The most popular entertainer in American, Al Jolson, stumped the nation for Harding, singing songs that compared the candidate to popular Republican President Abraham Lincoln. Harding won in a massive landslide, pulling over 7 million more votes than Cox. The Socialist Party candidate won 3 percent of the electorate, amassing ninety thousand votes. In the electoral college, Harding won thirty-seven states and 404 votes; Cox won only eleven southern states, with 127 electoral college votes, the traditional "Solid South" base of the Democratic Party.