Election of 1934

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The election of 1934 took place during the early stages of the electoral realignment of the 1930s. This basic change in national voting behavior brought about the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 for the first of four times, Democratic control of the United States Congress, and the creation of a Democratic majority or plurality in the electorate. The "Roosevelt Revolution," to use Samuel Lubell's term, ended a Republican-dominated era that dated back to the 1890s.

The realignment process probably began in the mid-term election of 1930, when the impact of the Great Depression first began to influence the political process. In that election Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives for the first time since the election of 1916. In the Senate, where only one-third of the membership was up for election, Republicans maintained the thinnest of margins for one more Congress despite the election of eight new Democrats. It was the first of a series of Democratic victories that established Democratic control of both houses of the United States Congress with only a few exceptions until the final decades of the twentieth century. In his first election, in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated the incumbent President Herbert Hoover with 57.4 percent of the popular vote, and the Democrats won substantial majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Probably any one of the leading Democratic candidates for the nomination in 1932 could have defeated Hoover, given the severity of the economic collapse, so it is not clear that a Democratic realignment had in fact occurred at that point. As the authors of The American Voter have suggested, if Roosevelt and the New Deal program had failed to win the support of a substantial portion of the electorate by the mid-1930s, voter behavior could have reverted to the voting patterns of the 1920s (Campbell et al. 1960). In other words, a permanent realignment of the electorate depended upon the success of Roosevelt's administration and a series of Democratic victories to persuade voters to repeatedly vote Democratic and begin to think of themselves as Democrats.

Much depended, then, upon the success of Roosevelt's New Deal. Beginning immediately upon his inauguration, Roosevelt led the Congress in the enactment of an unprecedented flood of legislation to deal with the Depression. This list included the Emergency Banking Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Civilian Conservation Corps Reforestration Act, the act that created the Tennessee Valley Authority, the National Industrial Recovery Act, and the Federal Emergency Relief Act. At its close, precisely one hundred days after it first met, the first Roosevelt Congress had enacted more important legislation in a shorter time period than any Congress in U. S. history.

The election of 1934 was the first national election held after the passage of the legislation of the hundred days. It was and still is a rule of U. S. politics that the party that won the previous presidential election should expect to lose congressional seats in the following mid-term election, but in 1934 the Democratic Party substantially increased its majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. In the Congress elected in 1934, Democrats added to their already overwhelming majority in the Senate with a net increase of nine seats. Republicans actually lost ten seats—nine to the Democrats and one to Wisconsin Senator Robert M. LaFollette, Jr., who, along with his brother Philip LaFollette, broke with the Republican organization to form the Progressive Party. Thus the party distribution in the Senate when the 75th Congress met in 1935 was sixty-nine Democrats, twenty-five Republicans and one Progressive.

Democratic victories in the Senate were focused in the Northeast (Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island), the Midwest (Indiana and Ohio) and the border states (Maryland, Missouri, and West Virginia). Many of the new Senate Democrats elected in 1934 were northern liberals eager to add their support to Roosevelt and the New Deal, including Joseph F. Guffey, the first Democrat from Pennsylvania to serve in the Senate since 1881. Guffey would become a loyal New Dealer and the cosponsor of the Guffey-Snyder Bituminous Coal Conservation Act of 1935, one of several New Deal laws struck down by the Supreme Court in 1936. The group also included Missouri Senator Harry S. Truman, who would become vice president in 1944 and president upon the death of Roosevelt in 1945.

Results of the election of 1934 in the House of Representatives were similar. In the 75th House, Democrats had a majority of 319 seats. The Republicans controlled 103 seats, and there were three members of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party and seven Wisconsin Progressives. This total represented a net Democratic increase of eight seats. The primary source of new seats was Pennsylvania, where the number of Democratic seats increased by twelve. Excluding changes resulting from vacant seats, Democrats also gained two seats in California, Connecticut, Illinois, and Massachusetts, and one in Wyoming. Again excluding vacancies, Republicans picked up five seats in Michigan and one seat in Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oregon. The Republicans also won two seats in 1934 from the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, but in Wisconsin the Progressive Party captured House seats from both major parties—five from the Republicans and two from the Democrats. With a few exceptions, Democratic gains in 1934 were concentrated in the states with large urban populations, and most losses (except those in Michigan) were in more rural, less populated states.

In the gubernatorial elections Democratic candidates won elections from Republicans in four states (Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, and Pennsylvania), but lost three states to the Republicans (Maryland, Michigan and New Jersey). In Wisconsin the Democratic incumbent lost to Philip LaFollette, who, having lost a bid for re-election in the 1932 Republican primary, won on the Progressive ticket. The only other successful third-party candidate for governor in 1934 was incumbent governor Floyd B. Olson, the Farmer-Labor candidate, who was re-elected in Minnesota. In California, Upton Sinclair, the author of The Jungle and a lifelong socialist, also attracted much attention by winning the 1934 Democratic gubernatorial primary on a program he called End Poverty in California. Sinclair's views were far to the left of those of both President Roosevelt and the California Democratic organization; failing to get their support, Sinclair lost decisively to a Republican. Even though the gubernatorial election returns in 1934 could be described as a draw, after the election Democratic governors controlled the state houses of thirty-eight of the forty-eight states and the Republicans controlled only eight.

Many New Deal Democrats concluded from the election results that the voting public had resoundingly endorsed the leadership of President Roosevelt and the legislation of early New Deal. Harry Hopkins, one of the leading figures in the Roosevelt administration, summed up the reaction of many New Dealers with his often quoted observation: "Boys—this is our hour. We've got to get everything we want—a works program, social security, wages and hours, everything—now or never" (Leuchtenburg 1963, p. 117). Most of Hopkins's expectations were realized as the 75th Congress in 1935 enacted some of the New Deal's most significant laws, including the Social Security Act, the National Labor Relations Act, and the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act.

The election of 1934 was a milestone in the voter realignment of the 1930s. Those who voted Democratic in 1934 and in the other elections of the decade were predominantly new voters concentrated in urban, industrial areas. These new Democrats were largely working-class, low-income voters—many of them first- or second-generation immigrants, in many cases Catholics and Jews from southern and eastern Europe. They were among those who suffered most from the unemployment of the 1930s, and they constituted a major source of support that made the Roosevelt Revolution possible.



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Howard W. Allen