Republican Theodore Roosevelt became president in September 1901 after William McKinley died from wounds he suffered at the hands of a gun-wielding assassin. In 1904, TR ran for a full term on his record and long history of public service which are reflected in the patriotic imagery of flag, eagle, Liberty, and the Washington Monument. A marked departure, and image that would not be out of place in 2016, is the 1908 poster for Republican William H. Taft, featuring his genial Oz-like head floating on a green background. As a member of Roosevelt’s administration, Taft was promoted by him as the candidate to continue his policies (a presumption in which he would be disappointed). William Jennings Bryan was the Democratic candidate for the third time, and his vigorous campaigning forced Taft to get on the campaign trail, too. Taft won but in 1912 Roosevelt refused to support him again, arranged his own candidacy, and split the Republican Party enabling Democratic nominee Woodrow Wilson to win. Wilson sought a second term in 1916 with the slogan “He kept us out of war.” Instead of a drawing or painting, this photograph perfectly reflects the professorial persona that Wilson carried into national office, his serious demeanor appropriate during a time of war in Europe.
FDR’s First Election:
A Pioneer Campaign by Automobile
In the summer of 1910 Roosevelt was working at Carter, Ledyard and Milburn, a well-regarded Wall Street law firm. Having told friends that he was interested in politics, he quickly agreed to run for a New York State Assembly seat in a safe Democratic district. When that opportunity fell through, he accepted the nomination in early October to run for the more prestigious 26th State Senate District against a strong Republican incumbent. If he won, he would represent Putnam, Columbia, and Dutchess counties, the latter the location of his family home in Hyde Park. With barely a month to campaign, he immediately rented a driver and a red, open-top (convertible) Maxwell touring car for $20 a day and invited Richard E. Connell (nominee for Congress) to join him on a campaign swing. Traveling at a top speed of 20 miles an hour, the two men were able to speak at many locations each day. FDR also bought and distributed campaign buttons, posters, and advertisements. His energy and enthusiasm engaged the crowds, as he promised to work for good government and against corruption in Albany: “I am pledged to no man, to no special interest, to no boss.” Already evident was his ability to deliver a persuasive speech. When attacked by an opponent as a carpetbagger and elitist, FDR laughed off the charges. On November 8, he won the election by more than a thousand votes (15,708 to 14, 568), a victory that owed much to his innovative auto campaign along with a larger Democratic sweep in the state and the nation.
As promised, FDR worked for reform in Albany and also began his career as a sponsor of conservation legislation to improve New York’s forests, foreshadowing the conservation programs he would enact as governor and then on a much larger scale as president. In 1912 FDR was re-elected to the State Senate by a larger margin even though he was extremely ill with typhoid. His manager and advisor, Louis M. Howe, energetically represented him on the campaign trail. Hiring the same car, sending 11,000 letters – perhaps the first direct mail campaign – from FDR to constituents, he helped secure Roosevelt another term. Once recovered, FDR campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson who defeated both Republican candidate William Howard Taft and FDR’s cousin, the Progressive/Bull Moose nominee Theodore Roosevelt. Wilson in turn appointed FDR Assistant Secretary of the Navy.
FDR’s First National Campaign: 1920
FDR became Assistant Secretary of the Navy in March 1913 and remained in the office until August 1920. During those seven years he helped manage the war effort, became better known nationally, and supported President Woodrow Wilson in his efforts to gain approval for U.S. membership in the League of Nations. By the spring of 1920, Wilson’s health had failed, the Senate had rejected the League, the economy was in poor shape, the country had been wracked by labor unrest and anarchist violence, and a vengeful Federal law enforcement crackdown to counter the “Red Scare.” The Democrats needed new candidates for the coming election. A proposed ticket uniting Herbert Hoover, revered for his extraordinary efforts to help refugees, and FDR as Vice-President failed to gain traction when Hoover announced he was a Republican. Nonetheless when Democrats finally, after 44 ballots at their convention, selected Governor James Cox of Ohio as their presidential candidate, he wanted FDR on his ticket for his name, energy, and the 45 electoral votes New York State offered. FDR was congratulated by many, including a generous Hoover who wrote, “I consider it a contribution to the good of the country that you have been nominated and it will bring the merit of a great public servant to the front.”
The Republican ticket offered Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding for President and for Vice President, Calvin Coolidge, Governor of Massachusetts. Harding’s slogan was “America First,” implying a distancing from the European affairs that had drawn the U.S. into World War I. Cox and FDR campaigned enthusiastically, with FDR crossing the country twice by train and giving almost a thousand speeches as well as informal talks, much as he had done during his first political campaign in 1910. This contrasted with Harding’s decision to campaign the old-fashioned way from his porch, where he spoke only to crowds who came to visit him. Harding also courted the new women’s vote: the first time all American women could vote as a result of the 19th Amendment increased the electorate by 8 million voters. Harding honored the suffragists and endorsed the program of the League of Women Voters for a minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, and national health care. Eleanor Roosevelt’s presence on the campaign trail with Franklin may have helped attract the votes of women, but the Democrats made no other formal outreach to secure them. In addition, the Republicans outspent the Democrats on advertising. With a nation desiring the “return to normalcy” promised by Harding, the Republicans won in a landslide, taking 61% of the popular vote and dominating the House and Senate. FDR later said, “I got to know the country as only a candidate for office or a traveling salesman can get to know it…The moment of defeat is the best time to lay plans for future victories.”
The election is memorable as the first for which returns were broadcast from commercial radio by KDKA-AM in Pittsburgh to a substantial area of the East coast. This media innovation took place just a few years after the technical developments made it possible to broadcast the human voice. The 1920s would be the era when broadcasting went national with hundreds of new stations, 60% of American families acquired radios, and FDR would learn to master this amazing new technology as Governor of New York.
Presidential Politics of 1928
Regular Democratic Nomination. Alfred E. Smith and Joe T. Robinson. 1928. (DC)
Democratic National Committee. Radio Broadcast Schedule, October 1928. (DC)
Both Republican Herbert Hoover and Democrat Al Smith were nominated on the first ballots at their respective conventions. Hoover was well known for his extraordinary humanitarian work – with European refugees during and after World War I and in the Mississippi floods of 1927 – which drew on his business acumen, engineering skills, and Quaker commitment to social service. Having won a number of primaries, he was paired with Senator Charles Curtis of Kansas. Smith’s long career as a progressive legislator and governor of New York made him a strong candidate. But his Catholicism and desire to see Prohibition overturned (making him a “wet”), and association with big city politics, did not play well in the rest of the country even with a Protestant, pro-Prohibition (“dry”) Southern running mate, Senator Joseph G. Robinson of Arkansas.
Hoover ran on the seeming prosperity of the country under the Republicans, proposing lower taxes and a protective tariff, thus attracting support from the business community. How ironic, in light of what would follow, that he would also promise “a final triumph over poverty.” Hoover also attracted women voters with his support for Prohibition. This advertisement in a mass-market women’s magazine illustrates the range of his female support, including many distinguished professional women and some Democratic women like Esther Lape, a very close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. Smith’s platform advocated public works and federal aid for education and farmers. Unfortunately, his ideas were drowned out by anti-Catholic groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, who conjured up the threat of rule by the Pope in Rome. Vitriolic attacks in print and over the airwaves pummeled the Democratic nominee, and rallies featured orations on “Al Smith and the Forces of Hell.”
Hoover was a new media pioneer too. He reached out to the millions who now had radios with seven major speeches that ignored his opponent. Friends with Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer of MGM, Hoover agreed to become the subject of a 1928 biographical campaign film, Master of Emergencies, highlighting his humanitarian achievements. Although silent – “talkies” and newsreels with sound would evolve in the next few years – this film about Hoover reportedly moved audiences to tears. The new importance of radio is emphasized by this schedule of Democratic broadcasts.
In the end, Hoover won by a landslide, with 58% of the popular vote (21 million votes) and 444 electoral votes to Smith’s 15 million and 87 electoral votes. At the same time, while Smith lost New York State by 100,000 votes, FDR won his contest to succeed Smith as Governor.
FDR Returns To Politics:
Governor of New York, 1928-32
Franklin Delano Roosevelt returned to public office when he was elected Governor on November 6, 1928. Al Smith had left the position to become the Democratic candidate for the presidency. This campaign brought FDR back into the political arena for the first time since his bout with polio in 1921. He carried on an energetic campaign by train and motor car around the state, guided by his political advisor Louis Howe. On election night, FDR returned to this house from Democratic headquarters at the Biltmore Hotel believing he had lost. By early morning, the tide had turned in his favor. He woke up to learn that he had won by a slim margin, just 25,000 votes (out of 4,000,000 cast) over Republican candidate Albert Ottinger. When FDR ran again for governor in 1930, he defeated his opponent by 750,000 votes.
To combat the dire consequences of the Great Depression during his second term as governor, FDR provided public funds to create jobs and public works through TERA (Temporary Emergency Relief Administration), led by Harry Hopkins. After FDR was elected president in November 1932, his New York policies laid the foundation for the New Deal to bring the nation out of its economic decline. The following March, FDR left this house to travel to Washington D.C, for his first inauguration as president on March 4, 1933.
During his years as Governor, FDR perfected his skills in using the radio to reach his constituents around the state. He outflanked his Republican opponents in the Legislature and Republican newspaper publishers by taking to the air once a month to talk about his proposals and plans. Little did he know how incredibly valuable this practice would be during his presidential years.
The survival of a campaign poster this size is very unusual – as is the campaign button from this period of Roosevelt’s revitalized political life.