Election of 1936

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The crushing defeat by Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt of his Republican challengerAlfred M. Landon in the presidential election of 1936 was a watershed in American politics. In political terms, it brought together northern wageworkers and southern racial conservatives in an uneasy coalition that was to provide a relatively stable electoral base for the Democratic Party until the 1960s, when disagreements over civil rights, social welfare, and the control of organized labor could no longer be kept off the national agenda. In ideological terms, the election amounted to a referendum on whether the new interventionist welfare state should replace the laissez-faire state that had dominated politics since the early twentieth century. In class terms, the Democratic and Republican parties were more sharply divided on economic and social issues than ever before (with the possible exception of 1896) and the struggle between the parties was often couched in the rhetoric of class conflict, a struggle between the wealthier classes and those seeking a more just and equitable share of American economic wealth and power.


By November 1936, the New Deal had reached its high point. Important reform measures had been enacted into law, including such landmark legislation as the Agricultural Adjustment Act (1933), the National Industrial Recovery Act (1933), the Securities Exchange Act (1934), the Banking Act (1935), the Social Security Act (1935), and the National Labor Relations Act (1935). While economic recovery would prove elusive until the early 1940s, by the fall of 1936 Roosevelt could point to the fact that nearly six million jobs had been created, industrial output had doubled, corporate profitability had risen from a $2 billion deficit in 1933 to a $5 billion surplus in 1936, and New Deal agencies were well on the way to providing relief and assistance to the forty-five million people (35 percent of the population) they were to aid by the end of the decade.

While scholarly debate has raged about the purposes and achievements of the New Deal, the American people perceived it as having alleviated the worst effects of the Depression. Roosevelt's popularity soared and people saw him as a strong and compassionate leader, one who genuinely cared about their welfare and one who had attempted to democratize government by employing racial, ethnic, and religious minorities in unprecedented numbers. Most importantly, Roosevelt was seen as the defender of the common person against the selfish and atavistic business community that seemed intent on destroying the New Deal's attempts to help the poor and marginalized.

Though Roosevelt had come to power in March 1933 with broad popular support and had attempted to forge an alliance that transcended class boundaries, by mid-1936 the administration had abandoned its conciliatory approach to business and adopted a more anti-business, pro-labor orientation intended to redistribute wealth and power to those outside the mainstream of the American power structure. The disaffection of business leaders with the president began with unease over their lack of power within the National Recovery Administration (NRA) early in Roosevelt's first term, and it continued to escalate as Roosevelt rhetorically pushed "soak-the-rich" taxation, public utilities reform, and social security legislation. The split between Roosevelt and business became an un-bridgeable chasm after the labor unrest of 1935 and the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act). The Wagner Act was particularly odious to business because it provided workers with the means of compelling employers to recognize unions that had won representative elections and it outlawed company unions and a number of other unfair labor practices.

By the 1936 election, therefore, most business leaders were firmly committed to a Republican victory and provided up to 80 percent of the $8.8 million that Republicans spent on the campaign. Prominent business people also supported a variety of anti-New Deal organizations, with the du Pont, Pitcairn, Morgan, Rockefeller, and Hutton groups providing 90 percent of their funding. The du Pont family alone provided 25 percent of the funding for the most prominent anti-Roosevelt organization, the American Liberty League. Business also funded the attempts of dissident conservative Democrats, who formed the National Jefferson Democrats in August 1936, to unseat Roosevelt.

Roosevelt wished to take full electoral advantage of these class antagonisms, and his campaign staff was directed to focus attention on symbols of corporate wealth and privilege rather than the Republican Party itself. Roosevelt mentioned the Democratic Party by name no more than three times throughout the campaign, and he supported progressive candidates such as Senator George Norris of Nebraska even when it meant supporting Republicans over Democrats. In campaign speeches across the nation, Roosevelt trumpeted the achievements of the New Deal and denounced the shortsighted and self-seeking "economic royalists" in big business, banking, and Republican-owned newspapers, who had changed the American economy into "privileged enterprise not free enterprise." Roosevelt's rhetoric indicated that he was willing to use the power of the federal government to protect ordinary Americans against the "economic tyranny" of wealthy business leaders.

As part of his winning electoral strategy, Roosevelt institutionalized the "New Deal coalition" that had begun to emerge as early as 1928. By the presidential election of 1936, the Democratic Party's electoral base rested largely upon the support of the "Solid" South, northern cities, immigrants, African Americans, ethnic and non-Protestant religious groups, women, working people, and organized labor. The shift in African-American allegiance from the Republicans to the Democrats was particularly significant because their migration from the South had increased their political power in northern cities. The move of organized labor into the Democratic camp was also momentous. Previously constrained by a hostile state and conservative craft leadership, the dynamic and militant leaders of the new industrial unions had presided over dramatic increases in union membership. They were eager to protect their hard won gains (particularly the Wagner Act) and thus became a crucial source of votes, campaign workers, and finance. Given the hostility of business, union campaign contributions were decisive and it has been estimated that organized labor provided more than $800,000 to Roosevelt's reelection, nearly 16 percent of total Democratic campaign expenditures. Indeed, in 1936 the Democrats received most of their campaign contributions from the same place as their votes, namely, the emerging New Deal coalition.


The man given the unenviable task of trying to unseat President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 was Alfred Mossman Landon, the forty-eight year old Republican governor of Kansas. Having narrowly won the gubernatorial election in 1932, he was the only Republican governor in the nation to win reelection in 1934, a fact that immediately propelled him into the race for the Republican nomination for the presidency. With the newspapers of publisher William Randolph Hearst giving him national exposure, Landon had little difficulty in securing the nomination at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in June 1936, and he immediately named conservative Chicago publisher Frank Knox as his running mate.

Landon's political and economic views were less conservative than the majority in his own party. As governor, he had attempted to maintain balanced budgets while also recognizing the importance to his state of the federal money pouring in through various New Deal programs, and he had spoken in favorable terms about the general purposes of the New Deal. But Landon's strategic dilemma was how to avoid alienating supporters of the New Deal while also projecting a sharply focused identity that distinguished him from Roosevelt in the eyes of the electorate. Republicans thought he would win votes in the farm states of the Midwest and hoped that his unpretentious down-home style would appeal to voters disillusioned with the urbane sophistication of Roosevelt.

At the outset of the campaign, Landon emphasized his more liberal qualities despite the ferocious attack launched by the Republican right on the New Deal. But as the campaign progressed, Landon showed that there were limits to his liberalism. His campaign speeches raised the terrifying specter of government intrusion into private life and attacked the "communistic" drift of the Roosevelt administration. By October 1936, as opinion polls showed Roosevelt gaining a significant lead (with the exception of the infamous Literary Digest poll that predicted a Landon landslide), Landon's attacks on the New Deal became increasingly extreme. However, by then it had became clear that Landon's only hope of victory was if third parties could attract votes away from the president.


The success of the New Deal in ameliorating the worst effects of the capitalist system without destroying it had undermined support for parties of the left and right who might have expected a political windfall given the economic and social crisis generated by the Depression. The Communist Party, whose membership grew from seven thousand in 1930 to nearly 100,000 in 1939, developed strong grassroots support during its principled struggles for southern textile workers, Appalachian mineworkers, and civil rights, as well as through the party's involvement in union organizing. But its electoral impact was minimal due to internal doctrinal disputes, high membership turnover, and the Popular Front strategy adopted in 1936, which urged support for liberal and social democratic parties against the menace of fascism. The Socialist Party fared even worse, with membership collapsing to only 6,500 in 1937 from a high of around twenty thousand in 1931, and the party's appeal was muted by ideological disputes, lack of a working-class base, and its electoral opposition to Roosevelt. Both parties found that leftist political convictions merged easily with the policies and programs of the New Deal, and radicals discovered by 1936 that some of their ideological commitments could be represented in the new Democratic Party coalition.

Opposition from new domestic demagogues was a far more potent electoral force than were the traditional parties of the left in 1936, and the Roosevelt campaign was deeply concerned about the populist appeal of demagogues, such as radio priest Father Charles Coughlin, pension movement leader Francis Townsend, and "Share the Wealth" leader Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, who had assumed leadership of the organization following the assassination of Senator Huey Long of Louisiana in September 1935. In June 1936, these forces came together to form the Union Party, which nominated Representative William E. Lemke of North Dakota for the presidency. Despite the Union Party's ostensibly progressive and populist leanings, liberals sensed its conservative proclivities and many voters were repelled by the party's growing anti-Semitism and its vitriolic personal attacks on Roosevelt. Ultimately, the demagogues were unable to counteract the enormous loyalty Roosevelt engendered among ordinary voters who had benefited from the New Deal.


Roosevelt's campaign manager Jim Farley had predicted that Roosevelt would win every state on November 3 except for Maine and Vermont. What initially appeared a wildly optimistic prediction turned out to be uncannily accurate. Turnout was high as 83 percent of eligible voters (around forty-six million Americans) cast a ballot, with Roosevelt receiving 27,751,841 votes compared to Landon's 16,679,491. Roosevelt received 60.8 percent of the popular vote and the plurality (11,072,350) was the largest in presidential election history. This gave Roosevelt the largest victory in the electoral college (523 to 8) since James Monroe's unopposed reelection in 1820. The results were equally convincing in the congressional elections, where Democrats won large majorities in the Senate (75–16) and the House of Representatives (331–88). The third-party threat failed to materialize as Union Party candidate William Lemke received only 892,763 votes (2 percent of the vote), Socialist candidate Norman Thomas won 187,342 votes (0.4 percent of the vote, down from the 2.2 percent he received in 1932), and Communist Party candidate Earl Browder won only 80,000 votes.

Furthermore, Roosevelt won 76 percent of lower income voters (but only 42 percent of upper income voters), 81 percent of unskilled laborers, 80 percent of union members, 84 percent of relief recipients, 76 percent of northern African Americans, between 70 and 81 percent of Catholics, and 86 percent of the Jewish vote. Roosevelt ran well in the South and West, but for the first time the northern cities emerged as the real power brokers in the Democratic Party. Roosevelt won 104 of America's cities with populations of 100,000 or more; Landon won two. The results have been heralded as one of the most striking examples of critical realignment in the twentieth century, a seismic shift in voting patterns that redefined the basis of political loyalties for a generation. Debate has raged, however, about whether the results signify that the Democrats were able to convert large numbers of voters from the Republican Party or rather that the Democrats were able to mobilize many first-time voters, particularly in immigrant communities. Whatever the outcome of such debates, there can be little doubt that the 1936 presidential election was a pivotal moment in American political history, marking one of the few occasions when a coalition of minorities normally outside the American power structure was able to exert a significant influence on the political process.



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