Election Surprises – FDR’s 1936 Re-Election

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In 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt was re-elected in a landslide victory. He carried 46 out of 48 states, losing only Maine and Vermont. His popular vote victory was the largest up to that time, and is still one of the largest popular vote majorities ever. Yet, his victory was a surprise to many and had some interesting results.

In 1936, Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt was easily re-nominated on the first ballot at the Democratic Convention. His New Deal had helped millions after the Great Depression, which although not completely over was getting much better for most Americans. In an apparently conceited view of the election, Roosevelt said, “There’s one issue in this campaign. It’s myself, and people must either be for me or against me.” Vice President John Nance Garner was re-nominated for a second term.

The Republican Convention, meeting in Cleveland in early June, nominated the popular Governor Alf Landon of Kansas on the first ballot. For Vice President, the delegates considered New Hampshire Senator Styles Bridges. But someone warned that the Democrats would start chanting “Landon Bridges Falling Down!” Instead, they nominated Colonel Frank Knox, the publisher of the Chicago Daily News.

People either loved or hated Franklin Roosevelt. Those who hated him were positive he would be defeated. Those who loved him were confident of his re-election. There were several minor parties (such as the Union Party, the Socialist Party, the Socialist Labor Party and the Prohibitionist Party), but they played no major part in the results of the election. Nothing irritated Socialist Leader Norman Thomas more than hearing people say that Roosevelt had carried out the Socialist platform of 1932. Thomas stormed that “Roosevelt did not carry out the Socialist platform unless he carried it out on a stretcher!”

One of the country’s leading weekly magazines was the Literary Digest. Starting in 1920, it had conducted the first large-scale polling in presidential elections. In 1920, 1924, 1928 and 1932, it had very accurately predicted the outcome of the presidential election. Again in 1936, the Literary Digest conducted its presidential election poll. On August 22, it announced , “THE DIGEST’s PRESIDENTIAL POLL IS ON! Unruffled by the tumult and shouting of the hottest political race in twenty years, more than 1,000 trained workers have swung into their accustomed job…THE DIGEST’s smooth-running machine moves with the swift precision of thirty years’ experience to reduce guess-work to hard fact…Once again, THE DIGEST was asking more than ten million voters – one out of four, representing every county in the United States – to settle November’s election in October…When the last figure has been totaled and checked, if past experience is a criterion, the country will know to within a fraction of 1 per cent, the actual popular vote of forty millions.”

On September 5, the first DIGEST returns from the postal-card poll had Landon ahead in four states. The next week, Landon was still ahead. On October 17, Landon was ahead in 32 of the 48 states, with FDR leading in only 16 states. On October 24, Landon had 54% of the popular vote and Roosevelt had only 40%. Finally, on October 31, just before the election, the DIGEST confidently predicted Landon as the sure winner with 370 electoral votes to 161 for Roosevelt. It also quoted what Jim Farley, Roosevelt’s Postmaster-General and campaign manager, said about the DIGEST poll in 1932: “The LITERARY DIGEST poll is an achievement of no little magnitude. It is a poll fairly and correctly conducted.” Soon after the election, THE LITERARY DIGEST folded.

Roosevelt himself predicted that he would take 270 electoral votes to Landon’s 178. Only “Big Jim” Farley got it exactly right. He said Roosevelt would carry every state except Maine and Vermont, which is exactly what happened. Roosevelt won 523 electoral votes to Landon’s 8. Even Landon’s home state of Kansas, where he was the popular governor, voted for Roosevelt. Roosevelt won the popular vote by more than 11,000,000 votes, (27,751,597 to 16,679,583).

Even though Congress had passed a law requiring that all states vote for president on the same day, Maine had been allowed to vote much earlier. Much as New Hampshire’s first primary today has a significant effect on later primaries, the earlier Maine vote for president influenced the later voting in other states. Maine had a long record of voting for the eventual winner and a saying had developed “As goes Maine, so goes the nation.” After Roosevelt’s sweep, the saying was changed by comedians and columnists to “As goes Maine, so goes Vermont.”

One unknown prankster posted a sign on a bridge going from New Hampshire into Maine reading, “YOU ARE NOW LEAVING THE UNITED STATES.” Another person suggested that Roosevelt sell Maine and Vermont to Canada to balance the budget. But the final comment came from one political humorist who said: “If the outcome of this election hasn’t taught you Republicans not to meddle in politics, I don’t know what will.”

The copyright of the article ELECTION SURPRISES – FDR’s 1936 RE-ELECTION is owned by John S. Cooper. Permission to republish ELECTION SURPRISES – FDR’s 1936 RE-ELECTION in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

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