Election of 1940

views updated


In the election of 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Republican nominee Wendell L. Willkie to win an unprecedented third term in the White House. Carrying 54.8 percent of the popular vote to Willkie's 44.8 percent (27.3 million votes to 22.3 million), Roosevelt won thirty-eight of the forty-eight states and 449 of the 531 votes in the Electoral College. Democrats retained substantial majorities in both houses of Congress.

The election of 1940 came at the juncture of the Great Depression and World War II. Unemployment remained at 17 percent in the United States early in 1940, but after Europe went to war in September 1939, and especially after the Nazi blitzkrieg overran Western Europe in the spring of 1940, the American defense program began to galvanize the economy. At the same time, national attention turned increasingly to defense and foreign policy. The election thus provided the first major test of the new Democratic majority, forged in the much different context of the hard times and domestic concerns of the Depression decade.

The war affected American politics throughout 1940, perhaps most importantly in determining the presidential nominees. Early in the year, Roosevelt seemed uncertain about his intentions, but the international situation evidently convinced him to run again and made the public willing to support a third term. Among Republican candidates, the war in Europe made Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft seem too isolationist and New York district attorney Thomas E. Dewey too young; utilities magnate Willkie, a dynamic dark-horse candidate, won the nomination. Democrats nominated Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace for vice president, while Republicans chose Oregon Senator Charles McNary.

Willkie and the Republicans tried without much success to capitalize on the third term issue, and they had little more success with charges that Roosevelt's anti-Axis policies were leading the United States to war. Responding to Republican accusations that he intended to enter the war, Roosevelt memorably declared that "I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars." For his part, Roosevelt stressed the improving economic situation and the New Deal's emphasis on employment, economic security, and rising living standards—issues that opinion surveys indicated remained central to public concerns and voting decisions.

The outcome of the election reflected not only the impact of the war but also powerful continuities from the politics of the Depression decade. Roosevelt's margin fell below that of 1936 when he had won 60.8 percent of the vote, partly because of diminished support among isolationists, especially in the Midwest, and among Irish Americans, German Americans, and Italian Americans unhappy about American foreign policy. The president also lost ground among wealthy voters opposed to the New Deal. Roosevelt gained some strength among supporters of his internationalist, anti-Axis policies, and his experience as president was reassuring given the global situation, but his victory came above all from the millions of working-class and lower-middle-class voters who continued to see him as the architect of the New Deal and the guarantor of security. Voting patterns, like party images, thus remained substantially like those of the 1930s, and the New Deal coalition of urban, working-class, lower-middle-class, ethnic, black, and white southern voters remained mostly intact; indeed it was solidified by the politics of 1940.



Burke, Robert F. "The Election of 1940." In History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–1968, Vol. 3, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. 1971.

Jeffries, John W. Testing the Roosevelt Coalition: Connecticut Society and Politics in the Era of World War II. 1979.

Lazarsfeld, Paul F.; Bernard Berelson; and Hazel Gaudet. The People's Choice: How the Voter Makes up his Mind in a Presidential Campaign, 3rd edition. 1968.

Lubell, Samuel. "Post-Mortem: Who Elected Roosevelt?" Saturday Evening Post 25 (January 1941): 9ff.

Parmet, Herbert S., and Marie B. Hecht. Never Again: A President Runs for a Third Term. 1968.

John W. Jeffries