Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Bennett Capozzi: FDR 1936 Election

The presidential election of 1936 was a landslide. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was running for reelection, carried every state except for Maine and Vermont, winning 60.8% of the popular vote and a whopping 523 electoral votes to his opponent, Alfred Landon's, eight. With such an enormous mandate, it would be easy to assume that Roosevelt ran a flawless campaign while Landon was incompetent, but the truth is different than, and to some degree, the opposite of this assumption. While Roosevelt often made mistakes that would make Cicero cringe, and his Republican opponent ran a well-planned and organized race, Roosevelt won the election by an overwhelming majority because he was a successful incumbent who had saved the country from the brink of collapse.
An electoral map of the results of the 1936 election. As evidenced by the overwhelming majority of blue states,  Roosevelt won this election in a clear landslide.
If Cicero had been alive to see Roosevelt's 1936 campaign, he would have been horrified by F.D.R.'s complete disregard for his rules. Roosevelt's first offense occurred early in the campaign, when he decided to take a leisurely sailing vacation followed by a period during which he made few public appearances and almost no political remarks. Cicero believes that a candidate should be campaigning nonstop from when he announces his candidacy to election night, and even specifies that "there is no time for vacations during a campaign." Even Roosevelt's fundamentals contrast with Cicero's belief. Roosevelt is the champion of the common man – from his first hundred days in office he worked to fix the banking system and redistribute wealth amongst Americans in order to get people back to work and out of soup kitchens. This earns him a reputation as a Communist, which Cicero believes is the death of campaign. Roosevelt even openly strikes out against traditionalists on the eve of the election, dictating:

"For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away. Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge! Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair! Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent"

He uses the stock market crash of 1929 as an example of the failures of small, traditional government and preaches in favor of heavy government intervention and extensive collectivism. He had also further isolated the traditionalist banking community with the Wagner Act and the Social Security Act. For example, the J.P. Morgans forbade the mention of F.D.R.'s name in their home. Cicero rather advises a candidate to "diligently cultivate relationships with... men of privilege. Both you and your friends should work to convince them that you have always been a traditionalist. Never let them think you are a populist."Not only was Roosevelt considered a populist, but he was crowned king of the Communists. While his wife, Eleanor, fought female equality and civil rights, he used massive government intervention to help the poor and the needy. Roosevelt was a populist who didn't appear to take campaigning very seriously, yet he still won by an enormous margin.

On the other hand, Roosevelt's opponent, Alfred Landon, closely followed Cicero's campaigning doctrine, yet he still suffered an embarrassing defeat, receiving only 36.5% of the popular vote. His most valuable assets, in Cicero's eyes, were his powerful business connections, especially those in the press. The Hearst papers, a highly influential newspaper conglomerate owned by William Randolph Hearst shamelessly endorsed Landon, running headlines that read things like: "Moscow Orders Reds in US to Back Roosevelt," and other scathing remarks. This combination of powerful connections and rampant mudslinging is Cicero's dream, because he believes that having powerful friends with influential opinions and a lot of money will help a campaign, while insults can effectively decimate the opponent. In terms of mudslinging, Landon even had help from members of the far left like Francis Townsend and Huey Long who believed that Roosevelt wasn't doing enough to get America back on track, and vocally advocated radical socialist proposals.

Even though Cicero would have picked Alfred Landon to be president, America chose Roosevelt because his strong record in his first term allowed him to make himself appear a larger than life hero in his bid for reelection. In other words, this is known as the incumbent effect. Roosevelt explained this phenomenon best when he claimed, "there's one issue in this campaign, it's myself, and people must be either for me or against me." Roosevelt assumed a hero's persona that made him and his policies the central issues of the campaign. This strategy was successful because in his first term he brought the country away from the brink of economic collapse and to some degree stabilized the job market and the banking system. In a fireside chat on September 6th, 1936, Roosevelt proclaims his superhuman resilience with regards to the dustbowl eaplaining that in the devastation,
"I would not have you think for a single minute that there is permanent disaster in these drought regions, or that the picture I saw meant depopulating these areas. No cracked earth, no blistering sun, no burning wind, no grasshoppers are a permanent match for the indomitable American farmers and stockmen and their wives and children who have carried on through desperate days, and inspire us with their self-reliance, their tenacity and their courage. It was their fathers' task to make homes; it is their task to keep those homes; it is our task to help them win their fight."
Roosevelt not only made himself look like a hero, he was one. Even though he ignored most of Cicero's suggestions for a successful campaign, Roosevelt was victorious because his amazing record gave him an enormous advantage.

A Roosevelt campaign button that reminds voters of Roosevelt's successful first term by encouraging them to "carry on," thereby insinuating that Roosevelt's decisions were beneficial and should be continued.


"1936 Presidential Election." The American Presidency Project. (accessed October 10, 2012).
"1936: Roosevelt Defeats Landon." Presidential Bibliographies. (accessed October 8, 2012).
Boller, Paul F., Jr. Presidential Campaigns. New York City, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Cicero, Quintus Tullius. "Campaign Tips From Cicero." foreign affairs 91, no. 3 (2012): 19-28.

"Franklin D. Roosevelt: Fireside Chat.." The American Presidency Project. (accessed October 10, 2012).
"Speech at Madison Square Garden (October 31, 1936)—Miller Center." Miller Center. (accessed October 10, 2012).


  1. Roosevelt was in some ways the anti-Cicero, but was still elected. Do you think this speaks more to Roosevelt, or the conditions of the country at this time? That is, was it the fact that Roosevelt was extremely effective in his style, or that the United States was in such a position that they did not need a slick campaigner?

    1. I think Roosevelt had the luxury of ignoring Cicero's rules because he had such a successful first term during which he saved the country from economic collapse. He was able to use his record to show that nobody could run the country as well as he could no matter how well they campaigned. Roosevelt had help from the incumbent effect in his reelection in 1936