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November 2013 Policy Study, Number 13-8


Herbert Hoover and the Transformational Election of 1932


President Hoover's Reelection Bid and the Election of 1932:



In 1928 Herbert Hoover was elected President in a landslide over his Democratic opponent Governor Al Smith of New York. Hoover, who had a national reputation as the “Great Engineer” and the “Great Humanitarian,” was seen as the best possible choice to continue the “Coolidge prosperity” of the 1920s. Previously he had served as Secretary of Commerce under both Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, and although conservative Republicans were sometimes annoyed with his progressivism, Hoover had an impeccable reputation as a public servant.


By the time of his bid for reelection in 1932 the nation was in the midst of the Great Depression as the New Era optimism of 1928 came to a close with high unemployment and the greatest economic crisis in our history. In response to the Depression, President Hoover utilized an activist approach, which consisted of programs such as the Federal Farm Board and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the controversial tax increase, and the Smoot-Hawley Tariff. As Hoover later reflected, “General prosperity had been a great ally in the election of 1928 and General Depression was a major enemy in 1932.”[2]


Hoover’s Depression policies established a precedent for the federal government to intervene in an economic crisis, and by 1932 the economy did show some signs of improvement. As historian and Hoover biographer Glen Jeansonne wrote:


After three dismal years, the summer of 1932 seemed to offer a glimmer of hope. It appeared that most industrialized countries had turned the corner on recovery. The economy may not rebound in time to save Hoover at the polls, but the economic revival seemed genuine. The recovery gathered momentum from July through September and held steady in October until mid-November. However, by February 1933, during one of the bitterest interregnums in American history, the economy came apart at the seams, and the Depression plunged to its lowest point.[3]


As the campaign season began in 1932, President Hoover was faced with not only fighting the Depression, a war on a thousand fronts, but also the need to defend his record and administration against the Democrats. In his Memoirs Hoover wrote that he “had little hope of reelection in 1932, but it was incumbent on me to fight it out to the end.”[4] Although Hoover wrote this several years after the election, it was not certain that he would automatically lose the election to the Democrats.[5]


The Republican Party nominated Hoover for reelection although some in the GOP had fostered hopes, however unlikely, that former President Calvin Coolidge would end his political retirement and seek the nomination. The Republican convention:


In an atmosphere of gloom and loss, Republican delegates suppressed their uneasiness over Hoover’s chances and nominated him again. They had no reasonable alternative, and their rejection of a sitting President would have hurt the party’s candidates on all levels. Nor were they ready to count Hoover out, for all his liabilities. He had spent a dozen years learning the mechanics of politics, demonstrated by his carefully controlled convention, and he also held the advantage of incumbency.[6]


Hoover’s reelection campaign was a defense of policies, urging citizens to hold the course. He also offered warnings about the radical nature of his opponent, New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Hoover, along with the Republican Party, did have an uphill battle because of the severity of the Depression in which the people personally blamed Hoover for the crisis. However unjustified, the “Hoover Depression” became an albatross to the President. Even today, across the political spectrum, Hoover is associated with poor economic policies and the Depression.


The Democrats were divided going into the campaign of 1932 with a “stop Roosevelt” faction led by notable party leaders such as former New York Governor and the 1928 Democratic nominee for President, Al Smith, who later became a voice of the American Liberty League in its opposition to New Deal policies.[7] “The Democrats promised a more unpredictable spectacle and produced a true cliff-hanger that kept delegates, spectators, and radio listeners up throughout the night.[8]  New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt eventually engineered a victory for the nomination and he famously flew to Chicago to accept the nomination in person.


During the campaign, Roosevelt made a wide spectrum of promises in an attempt to unify the Democratic Party and to attract other elements of the electorate. Roosevelt famously promised a New Deal, which was not explained to the people, but his speeches reflected the progressive philosophy of his intentions. He also criticized Hoover from the right by accusing the President of being reckless in his tax and spending policies. The Democrats also exploited the public animosity for the “Hoover Depression.” Hoover himself wrote, “it became the Democratic strategy to substitute attacks on me personally for attacks on my policies or even the Republican Party.”[9]


The campaign of 1932 also featured two very contrasting candidates, not only in political philosophy, but also in personality. President Hoover often appeared solemn and his speeches, which he wrote himself, were policy-driven, while Roosevelt appeared cheery and optimistic. Roosevelt was a gifted politician who became the “Great Communicator” during his time in office. His infamous Fireside Chats are still known to be some of the best political rhetoric in American history. President Ronald Reagan shared this gift with Roosevelt and also came to be called a “Great Communicator.”


Hoover’s October 31, 1932, speech at Madison Square Garden, New York, is underrated as to his political insight, not only in the campaign, but also for the future implication of Roosevelt’s policies. In his address Hoover stated:


This campaign is more than a contest between two men. It is more than a contest between two parties. It is a contest between two philosophies of government. We are told by the opposition that we must have a change, that we must have a new deal. It is not the change that comes from normal development of national life to which I object, but the proposal to alter the whole foundations of our national life which have been built through generations of testing, struggle, and of the principles upon which we have built the nation.[10]


In his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination, Hoover argued that his Depression policies had not only protected the “financial integrity of our government” but also combated fear and panic.[11] He also argued that the Democrats were using the Depression to stoke fears of the people. As Hoover argued:


This question is the basis upon which our opponents are appealing to the people in their fears and distress. They are proposing changes and so-called new deals which would destroy the very foundations of our American system.[12]


The Madison Square Garden speech was to a certain extent Hoover’s first opening shot against what would become New Deal liberalism:


My countrymen, the proposals of our opponents represent a profound change in American life — less in concrete proposals, bad as that may be, than by implication and by evasion. Dominantly in their spirit they represent a radical departure from the foundations of 150 years which have made this the greatest nation in the world. This election is not a mere shift from the ins to the outs. It means deciding the direction our nation will take over a century to come.[13]


Although Roosevelt, as well as the Democratic platform, campaigned against Hoover from a conservative direction in regard to his fiscal policies, his vagueness over the New Deal and his speeches did contain a progressive philosophy. In a campaign radio address Roosevelt argued that his New Deal program was “plain English for a changed concept of duty and responsibility of the government toward economic life.”[14] Roosevelt in his Oglethorpe University Address in May of 1932 famously called for bold experimentation in fighting the Depression:


The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within reach.[15]


In the Commonwealth Club Address in the fall of 1932, Roosevelt not only stated that the “day of enlightened administration has come” but signaled his belief in the progressive philosophy of a “living” Constitution:


The Declaration of Independence discusses the problem of Government in terms of a contract. Government is a relation of give and take, a contract, perforce, if we would follow the thinking out of which it grew. Under such a contract rulers were accorded power, and the people consented to that power on consideration that they be accorded certain rights. The task of statesmanship has always been the re-definition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order. New conditions impose new requirements upon Government and those who conduct Government.[16]


John Marini, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Reno, argues that “Roosevelt had made it clear, even before he was elected President, that government had a new and different role to play in American life than that assigned to it by the Constitution.”[17] Roosevelt himself disagreed with Hoover’s charge that he was undermining traditional constitutional limited government:


Once more he [Hoover] warned the people against changing — against a new deal — stating that it would mean changing the fundamental principles of America, what he called the sound principles that have been so long believed in this country. My friends, my New Deal does not aim to change those principles. It does aim to bring those principles into effect.[18]


The campaign of 1932 was a back and forth between Hoover, Roosevelt, and their supporters debating policies ranging from agriculture, economic and fiscal policy, unemployment and relief, government intervention, the tariff, and other issues. It was also a larger philosophical debate where both Hoover and Roosevelt claimed they were defending traditional constitutional government or “true liberalism.”[19]



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