Election of 1928

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The election of 1928 was the last of a Republican era extending back to the 1860s. The realignment that broke the Republican Party's hold on the electorate began only after the advent of the Great Depression and was not rooted in the old politics of the 1920s. America's Depression thus established the most significant discontinuity in American political history since the Civil War.

America's two major parties nominated their leading public officials in 1928. President Calvin Coolidge's withdrawal from the presidential contest led to the nomination of Herbert Hoover, who, as secretary of commerce, had become the driving force of domestic policy in the 1920s. The Democrats nominated Al Smith, the four-term governor of New York, who had earned a national reputation as a progressive devoted to social welfare and efficiency in government.

Al Smith's Catholicism and other social issues overshadowed the record and policies of the presidential candidates. Anti-Catholics launched a campaign against Smith's candidacy that ranged from fulminations against papal control of the country to scholarly debates on the relationship between church and state in Catholic theology. Protestant and Catholic voters split decisively in 1928 as Smith benefited from a pro-Catholic and Hoover from an anti-Catholic vote. Al Smith's opposition to prohibition won him support from "wet" voters, while "dry" voters united behind Hoover. Religion also became tied to race in 1928 as the Republicans cracked the solidly Democratic south by exploiting Smith's Catholicism, his stand on prohibition, and his alleged sympathy for racial equality.

The combination of economic prosperity, tranquility at home, and stability abroad guaranteed Republican success in 1928. Hoover garnered 58 percent of the popular vote, and his party, with victories in both houses of Congress, controlled the national government for a third consecutive term. The bright spot for Democrats was the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as governor of New York. Roosevelt had tried to avoid running in what looked to be a bleak year for Democrats, insisting on more time for rehabilitation from polio. He succumbed, however, to a personal plea from Al Smith, who thought Roosevelt would help him win votes in upstate New York.

In the aftermath of the Republican landslide, one of Roosevelt's correspondents wrote that no Democrat could again be elected president without a protracted campaign to educate the public in favor of progressive reform. Beginning in 1929, however, the Great Depression reeducated the public far more quickly than Roosevelt would have dreamed possible from the perspective of 1928. Roosevelt, who reluctantly attempted a political comeback that he had thought was premature, ironically found himself ideally situated as governor of New York to exploit Hoover's failed response to the challenges of the Great Depression.



Burner, David. "The Brown Derby Campaign." New York History 46 (1965): 356–380.

Craig, Douglas B. After Wilson: The Struggle for the Democratic Party, 1920–1934. 1992.

Lichtman, Allan. Prejudice and the Old Politics: The Presidential Election of 1928, rev. edition. 2000.

Allan J. Lichtman