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November 2013 Policy Study, Number 13-8


Herbert Hoover and the Transformational Election of 1932


The Defeat of Hoover and the Rise of New Deal Liberalism



The result of the election was a landslide victory for Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt won 472 electoral votes and 57.4 percent of the popular vote, while Hoover won 59 electoral votes and 39.6 percent of the popular vote.[34] The election of 1932 was a transformational election which not only changed the direction of domestic politics during the 1930s but also marked the beginning of a progressive direction that still impacts the nation today.


Donald A. Ritchie, who serves as a historian for the United States Senate, argues that “the 1932 election marked a profound reversal of political fortunes, as decades of Republican ascendancy gave way to a half-century of Democratic dominance.”[35] The Republican ascendancy, which began with the landslide victory of Warren G. Harding in the 1920 election and was continued by the victories of Calvin Coolidge in 1924 and Hoover in 1928, came to an end with Roosevelt’s victory. Republicans took a hammering in 1932, and it would soon become the beginning of a long period of waiting in the political wilderness.


It is often assumed that because of the severity of the Great Depression that President Herbert Hoover’s bid for reelection was a lost cause and that a Democratic victory was certain. Based on the landslide victory of the Democratic Party in the 1932 election it is easy to assume that the Republicans had no chance of victory, especially with Hoover being personally blamed for the Depression. Ritchie notes that “with hindsight, political analysts have asserted that the Great Depression guaranteed any Democrat could have won in 1932, making Franklin Roosevelt’s election a foregone conclusion.”[36] Nevertheless, as Ritchie wrote, “Yet for much of that year [1932], Hoover expected to win a second term, and well-informed contemporaries gave him a reasonable chance of succeeding, anticipating that the economy would turn the corner by the time of the election.”[37]


The election of Roosevelt did present a fundamental change on American politics, but at the time the Democratic Party was still seen as a traditional Jeffersonian Party. As political writer Michael Barone wrote:


Some have interpreted the 1932 election as a turn to the economic left, but the Democrats, who for years had been portraying themselves as Jeffersonian localists competing with Hamiltonian centralist Republicans and had been supporting policies that left alone local institutions of their diverse supporters —segregation and the saloon — were arguably right on economic issues; their record of backing programs that expanded the federal government and centralized control over the economy was at most spotty. Most congressional advocates of government ownership or economic redistribution were progressive Republicans — LaFollette, Norris, and LaGuardia.[38]


The Democratic Party even criticized the reckless fiscal policies of the Hoover administration and although some, such as Hoover, saw Roosevelt’s New Deal as approaching major change to government, the election of Roosevelt was not seen as revolutionary. Nevertheless, the New Deal “changed American life by changing the relationship between Americans and their government.”[39]


The political impact of the election of 1932 is also an issue of debate among both historians and political scientists. Agreement exists that Roosevelt’s New Deal had a fundamental impact on American politics, but arguments persist as to when the New Deal realignment occurred; that is, was the election of 1932 the starting point or perhaps the congressional election of 1934 or the presidential election of 1936.”[40] As Ritchie wrote:


Other scholars have also pointed to the congressional races of 1934 and the presidential election of 1936 as pivotal moments, arguing that by then, the voters had a clearer sense of what Roosevelt intended. In those elections, African American voters shifted significantly from Republican to Democrat, and Roosevelt’s New Deal political coalition more fully emerged. Since those elections hinged on voter approval of New Deal programs, however, they required the New Deal to have been in place, leading back to the election of 1932.[41]


Gordon Lloyd, a Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, in The Two Faces of Liberalism: How the Hoover-Roosevelt Debate Shapes the 21st Century, also argues that the election of 1932 resulted in a fundamental shift in American politics. Lloyd argues that “the Hoover-Roosevelt debate in the 1930s — what I [Lloyd] have called the Two Faces of Liberalism — not only shapes, but defines, the debates we are having in public policy in the twenty first century.”[42] The Two Faces of Liberalism is driven by primary sources that center on the political debate over the New Deal, which features Hoover and Roosevelt as the central players.


Ritchie provides agreement to the thesis that the election of 1932 had, and is still having, an impact on American politics and political philosophy:


Not only did the direction of federal policy shift from conservative to liberal as a result of the election, but the election redefined liberalism in the process. Both Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover went into the campaign regarding themselves as liberals, although Roosevelt spoke of creating a ‘new liberalism’ whereas Hoover lamented that ‘true liberalism’ ended with his defeat.[43]


Ritchie, as with other scholars, also points out that “Roosevelt’s New Deal expanded federal authority and altered the relationship between the government and the people.”[44] Roosevelt’s New Deal, which built upon previous progressive policies, ushered in the modern welfare and regulatory state, which translated into a more activist federal government that went beyond its traditional constitutional scope of power.


Glen Jeansonne in The Life of Herbert Hoover: Fighting Quaker, 1928-1933 notes the signs of economic recovery that were occurring in 1932.[45] Jeansonne wrote that the Democrats “realized that unless prosperity returned or they committed a colossal mistake, they were certain victors.”[46] Although the economy did show signs of recovery it was not sustainable and the nation fell deeper into the Depression, especially with the bank panic. President Hoover and other Republicans tried to make their case that the administration’s policies were working, but the arguments could not overcome the national indictment, however unfair, of the “Hoover Depression.” As Jeansonne wrote:


The Republicans had already lost before the campaign began, indeed, before the nominating conventions met, defeated not by a human foe but by an economic scourge. Even a strong campaign by Hoover and a weak one by FDR would have affected only the margin of victory, not the outcome.[47]


Donald Ritchie wrote, “like so many Americans, Herbert Hoover lost his job to the Depression.”[48] Hoover, who had won the 1928 election in a landslide, was now, however unfairly, tied to the Depression. Jeansonne explained:


Almost all presidents who serve under the shadow of hard times are blamed for them and are not re-elected. Probably no one elected in 1928 could have been re-elected in 1932. If Satan had run on the Democratic ticket in 1932, Satan would have won. Some Republicans still think that Satan actually did. Put another way, if Jesus Christ had run on the Republican ticket, Jesus would have finished second.[49]


Hoover’s campaign, which was not just a defense of his administration and policies but also a warning about the implications of Roosevelt’s radical policies, was not enough to rally the nation to reelect him to a second term. Hoover, who won the confidence of the people in his landslide victory of 1928, was soundly rejected by the American people. The significance of the 1932 election and the rise of Franklin D. Roosevelt altered the political structure of the nation. Donald Ritchie argues:


No twentieth-century election more profoundly affected the United States than Franklin Roosevelt’s victory over Herbert Hoover in 1932. The ferocity of the Great Depression forced the American people to reevaluate their expectations of government and their party loyalties…A momentous political realignment took place, with the majority of the voters repeatedly ratifying Roosevelt’s leadership and uniting in a coalition that long survived him, ensuring his programs would endure and expand. Although Hoover’s warnings against big government continue to resonate, Roosevelt’s vision of a responsive government has prevailed.[50]


Glen Jeansonne wrote that “one of the ironies of the 1932 election is that the chief criticism of historians, and many of his contemporaries, is that Hoover was a ‘do-nothing’ president.”[51] Although the image of Hoover taking a laissez-faire (hands-off) approach to the Depression is still strong, more scholarship is depicting his administration as either too activist (from a libertarian perspective) or not going far enough in using the full force of the federal government as Roosevelt’s New Deal (from a progressive perspective). Hoover’s presidential legacy is often hammered by both philosophical perspectives.




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