As his popularity reached a zenith during the 1936 election, FDR took steps to attract black voters to the Democratic Party and create an enduring political majority.
With the economy rising, unemployment falling, and farm income increasing, FDR easily defeated his moderate Republican challenger, Alfred M. Landon, of Kansas to win a second term as president. FDR received 60.4 percent of the popular vote, while losing only two states, Maine and Vermont. His political coattails extended to Democrats in Congress who, with his help, captured 76 of 92 seats in the Senate and 331 of 420 seats in the House.
The New Deal Coalition
Roosevelt had achieved a political realignment in the United States with his Democratic party now the majority. He had forged together a “New Deal Coalition” made up of traditional Democrats from southern and western states along with working-class voters from industrial eastern and midwestern states. This coalition dominated national government for decades.
Roosevelt and Black Voters
One of the most significant political developments of the 30’s was the realignment of black voters from the Republican to the Democratic party. It began during the midterm elections of 1934 when a majority of black voters cast ballots for Democratic candidates, including the first black Democrat ever elected to Congress.
Seventy-five years of loyalty to the Republican party completely ended during the presidential election of 1936 when Roosevelt won 76% of the black vote, a total reversal of the percentages from the ‘32 election.
Roosevelt Woos Black Voters
Many blacks who had never voted before cast ballots for Democrats because of FDR’s New Deal policies and his calculated moves to include them in his New Deal coalition. Roosevelt had issued an executive order in May of 1935 prohibiting discrimination on WPA projects. The WPA employed a percentage of blacks higher than their numbers in the national population and paid wages two times more than what many had been earning.
Roosevelt’s concern for civil rights also helped win him black support and was evident in his consistent appointment of judges who favored such legislation. This included the first black federal judge in American history. Roosevelt also appointed blacks to high positions within his administration and throughout government agencies.
The New Deal Coalition’s Legacy
Critics would argue that discrimination was built into the New Deal, with lower relief payments made to blacks and programs like the Agricultural Adjustment Administration actually having a negative impact on blacks.
Yet overall the New Deal did more to affect the lives of black Americans in a positive way than any government initiatives since Reconstruction and black voters acknowledged this with their continued support of Roosevelt and the Democrats.
- Himmelberg, Robert F. The Great Depression and the New Deal Greenwood Press, Westport Conn. 2001
- McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression, America, 1929-1941 Times Books, Toronto. 1984
- Badger, Anthony J. The New Deal Hill & Wang, New York, 1989