1936: FDR’s Second Presidential Campaign
The New Deal
The 1936 election was a referendum on President Roosevelt’s first-term policies. Unemployment had gone down, millions were working in New Deal programs best known under their alphabetic abbreviations, and a sense was growing that the struggling economy had turned an important corner. Social Security had been signed into law, along with legislation to build housing, create an unemployment insurance system, ensure a minimum wage, and give workers the right to organize and bargain collectively. The New Deal had not fixed everything, yet it was well on its way to convincing average citizens that it was addressing their interests.
Regulation of the banking and financial industries had converted many – though not all — in the business communities to enemies of FDR, but he was not fazed: “Never before have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
It is estimated that 20 million Americans were receiving some form of assistance from the government by 1936. The first major New Deal program, the PWA (Public Works Administration) had put several hundred thousand people (mostly men) to work in construction. The WPA (Works Progress Administration), which launched in 1935, employed three million more in a variety of programs, and by the time the program ended six years later, it had employed eight million.
The WPA encompassed everything from construction to the works of artists, musicians, writers, actors, teachers, historians, weavers, and blacksmiths. Programs for young people had also helped prime the economy. The CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) hired 2.7 million young men to work in conservation and 75% of their monthly salaries were sent back to their families. The NYA (National Youth Administration) helped over two million high school and college students stay in school by paying them for part-time work. And the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) brought electricity and other benefits to one of the poorest regions in America ignored by private enterprise. Dams and flood control projects were commenced in other parts of the country too.
All these employment programs were influenced by several women: Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to hold a cabinet post; First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who ensured that women were hired for many projects; and civil rights pioneer, New Deal administrator, and FDR advisor Mary McLeod Bethune, who monitored the hiring of African Americans.
On the Air: FDR and Radio
By 1936 FDR enjoyed a huge advantage. During his four years as President he had probably been heard on the radio by everyone in the country. Whether it was a homemade set of a few vacuum tubes and wires, or a beautiful mahogany cabinet that blended with family furniture, it was a technology that had come of age very quickly, the Internet of its time. FDR’s mastery of the radio – his carefully paced speech, clear language with familiar analogies, and engaging salutation to “My friends” – riveted Americans from the time they heard his inaugural address. A week later, on March 12, 1933, he spoke to the nation about the banking crisis, the first of 30 radio talks about difficult issues that would collectively be known as “Fireside Chats.” After that broadcast a New York judge wrote to him:
When your radio talk began everyone seemed to become hypnotized, because there wasn’t a word spoken by anyone until you had finished and as if one voice were speaking all spoke in unison ‘We are saved.’ The frantic individuals of a few moments before declared that they would leave their money in the banks and that they were not afraid of the future. This episode convinces me more than ever that you have the confidence of the people, that you are the man of the hour, and that with the united support of all its people, you are going to rehabilitate this great nation.
Listeners might have also heard him during broadcasts of dedication ceremonies of major new projects, or short reflections on a specific holiday like Brotherhood Day or Christmas. Hundreds of times, wherever he went, whenever he spoke, microphones were set up. His very first radio address as president-elect was broadcast on November 9, 1932, the day after the election, from his New York City home, and it was then filmed to be shown as a newsreel:
I am glad of this opportunity to extend my deep appreciation to the electorate of this country which gave me yesterday such a great vote of confidence. It is a vote that had more than mere party significance. It transcended party lines and became a national expression of liberal thought. It means I am sure that the masses of the people of the nation firmly believe that there is great and actual possibility in an orderly recovery through a well-conceived and actively directed plan of action. Such a plan has been presented to you and you have expressed approval of it. This, my friends, is most reassuring to me. It shows that there is in this country unbounded confidence in the future of sound agriculture and of honorable industry. This clear mandate shall not be forgotten and I pledge you this and I invite your help in the happy task of restoration.
Eleanor Roosevelt later wrote, “His voice lent itself remarkably to the radio. It was a natural gift, for in his whole life he never had a lesson in diction or public speaking.” And an admirer wrote early in the presidency, “Your voice radiates so much human sympathy and tenderness, and oh, how the public does love that.” Another correspondent captured the total effect of his presence on the air, “You have a marvelous radio voice, distinct and clear. It almost seemed the other night, sitting in my easy chair in the library, that you were across the room from me.”
In addition, how many millions had heard and seen him during his public activities in newsreels at their local movie theaters, produced by five major companies – Movietone News, Paramount, Pathe, Hearst and Universal. It was of course news but also of inestimable benefit, priceless one could say, during an election campaign.
The Candidates in 1936: FDR vs Landon
Vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt for President. 1936. (N-YHS)
From among several governors and senators running in the 1936 primaries, the Republicans finally chose Kansas Governor Alfred “Alf” Landon as their presidential candidate. Chicago newspaper publisher Frank Knox was his running mate. Landon was a liberal Republican who had earned a considerable fortune in the oil well business and apparently admired aspects of the New Deal and agreed with the Democrats on other policy issues from the 1930s onward. Later in life he would explain his political philosophy: “I would say practical progressive, which means that the Republican Party or any political party has got to recognize the problems of a growing and complex industrial civilization. And I don’t think the Republican Party is really wide awake to that.”
The Republican platform criticized Social Security and New Deal regulation of business, and late in the campaign Landon added the charge that FDR was corrupt, meaning he had acquired too much executive power through his use of emergency grants of power from Congress and call for “national economic planning.” Not a national figure before his nomination, Landon did little campaigning much to the surprise of many in his party. In 1936 he published a book about his ideas, America at the Crossroads, with a first chapter titled ”The New Frontier.” That phrase would be made famous by President John F. Kennedy several decades later. The Democrats unanimously re-nominated FDR and Vice President John Garner at their Philadelphia convention in late July 1936. During the campaign George Gallup used “scientific” polling to predict that FDR would win. The technique would thereafter come to analyze and influence every subsequent election.
Re-Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt For President Club, 1936. A club promoted throughout the United States to re-elect President Roosevelt in 1936. “He brought us out of the depression. The Benefactor of Mankind.”[Left side] “Signatures of House of Representative Members who passed the New Deal Laws – 1933. Among the 215 listed here were future House Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts, future Supreme Court Chief Justice Frederick M. Vinson from Kentucky, and Martin Dies, Jr of Texas, founder of the House Committee Investigating Un-American Activities (aka Dies Committee, HUAC) which looked for Nazis and Communists in government and other sectors of American life in the 1930s and 1940s. [Right side] “United States Senators.” Recognizable names among the 74 Senators include Robert Wagner of New York, Harry F. Byrd of Virginia, Carter Glass of Virginia (sponsor of the financial reform Glass-Steagall Act), John Nance Garner of Texas who was President of the Senate as FDR’s Vice President, Harry Truman of Missouri (elected Vice President in 1944), and Huey Long of Louisiana.
There were some alterations such as Florida Senator Claude Pepper’s signature replacing that of his defeated rival, Park Trammell, who was in the Senate in 1933. Also, there is a very, very faded signature by Lyndon B. Johnson who added it after he was elected to the House in a special election held April 1937. It is a mystery as to how he came to sign this document.
Below the signatures of the Senators are those of Roosevelt’s ten original Cabinet members. These include Frances Perkins, the Secretary of Labor and the first female Cabinet member, and Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior; they were the only Cabinet members who served for the duration of Roosevelt’s presidency from 1933 to 1945. Both Perkins and Ickes were offered their positions in meetings with President-elect Roosevelt at his New York City home in February 1933.
FDR won by a historic landslide, winning 27.7 million (almost 61%) of the popular vote, 523 electoral votes, and 46 states. Landon received only 16.6 million votes and just eight electoral votes (Maine and Vermont) hence belying the political notion that dated to the late 19th century, “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”
By the time FDR won the 1936 election, the inauguration date had been changed from March 4 to January 20 (or 21) to eliminate the terrible lame-duck gap of four months between election and oath of office. To change the date the 20th Amendment to the Constitution had been passed by Congress in January 1932. Ratified in January 1933, it took effect only after October 1933; the first time it was applied was for the 1936 inauguration.
The Democrats also kept control of Congress in 1936. The huge vote behind FDR forged a new Democratic electorate that would endure for decades, bringing together Protestants, Jews and Catholics, African Americans, farmers and labor, and liberals and radicals. Republican vice presidential candidate Frank Knox would later re-appear on the national political scene. FDR appointed him Secretary of the Navy in July 1940, one of a number of bi-partisan Cabinet members during his presidency, including Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and Secretary of War Henry Stimson. Republicans believed these appointments were part of FDR’s attempt to attract Republican votes but they were grounded in reality. Knox had military experience in the Spanish-American War and World War I. He later supported FDR’s goals for preparedness as war ravaged Europe and went on to oversee the rapid expansion of the U.S. Navy as the country prepared for war.
1936 Issues. Campaign materials, 1936. (N-YHS)
The central issue for the Republicans was the New Deal and its extraordinary government programs to re-start the economy by employing millions of Americans. The best symbol of this critique was the shopping bag which listed market basket prices when FDR became president and three years later into his term. Republicans blamed the increase in prices from $1.99 ($36.82 in today’s dollars) to $2.77 ($51.25) on the inflation caused by his spending programs; of course, many Americans could better afford to feed their families in 1936 because of government salaries. Also featured here are campaign materials for Governor Landon, the Republican nominee, including the sunflower, representing his native state of Kansas. The letter from William Allen White (1868-1944), nationally known Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and Progressive, and the compendium of newspaper articles, lauded Landon’s denunciation of anti-Semitism and Ku Klux Klan activities in Kansas for its attacks on black Americans.
George M. Cohan, “What A Man.” 1934. (N-YHS)
Numerous songs were written honoring the work of President Roosevelt. George M. Cohan (1878-1942), was the author of many patriotic pieces including “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Over There.” For these and others, he was honored in 1936 by President Roosevelt with the Congressional Gold Medal.
The American Labor Party was founded in 1936 and grew out of Socialist organizations after diverging factions could no longer agree on policy or candidates. It represented the interests of the major labor unions and hoped to draw votes from supporters of Socialist candidate Norman Thomas. The ALP supported President Roosevelt and Herbert H. Lehman, who was running for re-election as New York Governor. He would serve in that office until 1942 when he resigned to work for the State Department and then the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.