The 1936 Presidential Election
"As Maine goes, So goes Vermont"
-Post-1936 Presidential Campaign Wisecrack
Though the quip "As Maine goes, so goes Vermont" was attributed to Franklin Roosevelt's Campaign Manager James Farley, it was, as Time magazine later noted, a spontaneous comment constituting the "wittiest crack" of the campaign.1
Why? Prior to the 1936 election, the phrase, "As Maine goes, so goes the nation" reflected Maine's status as a predictor of successful presidential contenders. Maine elections had traditionally been held before those in other states--earlier winters made November voting difficult there, so elections were held in September. The party that prevailed in the Maine elections often did in the later campaign for the White House. When Republicans began winning in Maine's September 1936 elections, members of the party began touting the phrase in anticipation of a presidential victory against incumbent Franklin Roosevelt that November.
Indeed, the nation's most respected survey on the presidential question, the Literary Digest poll, which had accurately predicted the previous five elections, announced that the Republican candidate, Alf Landon, would win. Their conclusion was based on a poll of more than 2 million voters. However, young upstart pollster George Gallup decided to conduct another public opinion survey and correctly predicted that Roosevelt would win. As it turned out the Literary Digest had polled mostly its own readers, who were largely affluent and Republican. Gallup, on the other hand, conducted his poll using a smaller, but demographically representative sample of 5,000 people (pioneering the use of scientifically-based sampling in the process). Roosevelt won the election by a huge landslide, securing 60.8% of the popular vote to Landon's 36.5%. As this election map shows, Landon won only two states, Maine and Vermont, prompting the jibe "As goes Maine, So goes Vermont."
The election results confirmed a phenomenon that first became evident during the 1932 election. In that year Roosevelt won handily over Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover, beating him by 17 percentage points in the popular vote and by more than 75 percentage points in the electoral vote.2
Most political scientists and historians agree that the elections of 1932, 1934, and 1936 saw a "political realignment," that is, an emergence of a new and powerful coalition of voters that would come to shape the outcome of subsequent elections at least until the late 1960s. White ethnics, union workers, mid-Western farmers, southerners, and intellectuals formed the core of this new coalition, which Roosevelt and his campaign manager Farley made special efforts to organize into a Democratic voting constituency. These were the individuals who had felt most ignored in the 1920s, a period that saw great national prosperity, although this prosperity was unevenly distributed. The nation's wealth jumped from just over 74 billion in 1923 to 89 billion in 1929, but a small fraction of the population, the richest .1% of people in the country had a combined income equal to that of the bottom 42%. When thousands of banks failed, billions in savings disappeared, and unemployment jumped to more than 23%, all within the two years of the 1929 stock market crash. The millions of economically vulnerable were the first to be affected by these events.3
Urban white ethnics were recent immigrants or children of immigrants that found themselves in the most poorly paying jobs and most impoverished communities. They were often the first to lose their jobs whenever the economy shuddered. Undercompensated laborers were actively and sometimes violently discouraged from organizing for higher wages and benefits from employers, whose anti-union tactics were abetted by government force, legislation or indifference. Like urban ethnics, both black and white Southerners, most of who were already living in or near poverty, felt the economy contract before the middle classes did. Farmers' lives had been plagued by uncertainty since the 1920s: natural disasters and unstable crop prices could throw the once-prosperous farmer into poverty and even homelessness with little warning.4 Progressive intellectuals felt dissatisfied with the way Hoover and Congress were addressing the economy and social problems generally. Hoover may have been sympathetic to the multiplying penniless in his midst, but his brusque manner infuriated many, some of whom paid him sarcastic tribute by naming the shacks they were forced to live in after evictions "Hoovervilles." These millions who felt left behind were inspired by FDR's aggressive optimism, exemplified in his 1932 Democratic nomination speech, which suggested a ground-up transformation of a society whose riches seemed constantly to elude them:
"I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people. Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage. This is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people."
The motley cluster of groups we today call "the Roosevelt coalition," or "the New Deal coalition," it should be noted, were by no means unified in all of their political positions. Indeed, urban white ethnics eyed the intellectuals in their midst warily and were in turn regarded with suspicion by mid-Western farmers they had never met. Their shared sense of economic desperation, along with Roosevelt's disarmingly cheerful promises of change, however, attracted them in a way Hoover's serious brooding did not.
The formation of the Roosevelt coalition, moreover, is a much clearer phenomenon in retrospect. The existence of such a voting block was by no means clear in the campaign preceding the election. In 1936, no one knew with any certainty that the Gallup poll would prove correct and the Literary Digest poll wrong. And while Catholics ultimately proved to be willing members of the coalition, there were real fears that they wouldn't vote for Roosevelt in November 1936.
Millions of Catholic voters helped bring Roosevelt his landslide victory in 1936. Estimates of the number of Catholics voting for FDR range from 70% - 81%. FDR supporter Fr. John A. Ryan estimated that 70% of the Catholic clergy voted for the President. Father Maurice Sheehy, another pro-Roosevelt priest, estimated that 76% of Catholics voted for the incumbent.5 Several prominent members of the Catholic hierarchy, particularly Cardinal George Mundelein of Chicago and Cardinal Patrick Hayes of New York, expressed warm approval of Roosevelt and the New Deal programs associated with his administration.
Nonetheless, while most Catholics living across the United States supported Roosevelt over the other choices, they were by no means uniform in their politics and there were many vocal critics of the President among them. Catholics may have comprised the largest religious denomination in the country at more than 20 million, but in many cases they were both insulated from the broader society due to persistent anti-Catholicism in the general population and from each other due to ethnic differences among them.
American anti-Catholicism had been on full display during the Presidential campaign of 1928. In that year, Al Smith, the first Catholic ever to be nominated for President by a major party, secured the Democratic nomination. Smith is credited with drawing millions of urban ethnic voters to the polls and into the Democratic Party, but he lost the election, giving Herbert Hoover a landslide victory. Anti-Catholicism wasn't the sole reason for Smith's crushing defeat (his stance against Prohibition also fueled opposition to his candidacy), but it contributed immensely, particularly among native-born white Protestants living outside of America's largest cities. Smith's Catholicism was the grounds on which the Ku Klux Klan, Protestant ministers and even local political officials campaigned against him.6 If Smith were president, they charged, the pope would control America. The cartoon on the right circulated during the campaign and illustrates this particular prejudice.
Ethnic Catholics, on the other hand, flocked to the polls to vote for Smith. In the 1930s most Catholics lived in cities, were working class, and were far more likely to be an immigrant or recently descended from one than their Protestant counterparts. Before restrictive immigration laws were put in place in the 1920s, millions of Catholics flowed into the country; more than one million Catholics entered the country in each decade between 1880 and 1920. Migrating successively from Ireland, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Italy, and other parts of Europe, these immigrants tended to cluster in their own communities for at least one or two generations, and the later groups of immigrants in particular established "national" churches for members of their own ethnic group, a way of easing their transition into the American church.7 These ethnic Catholics remained loyal to the Democratic party throughout the 1930s. Organizations such as the National Alliance of Bohemian Catholics, Lithuanian Roman Catholic Alliance, Polish National Catholic Church, and Slovak Catholic Sokol expressed public support for Roosevelt and the New Deal during the 1936 presidential campaign.8
None of this Catholic support was taken for granted during the campaign of 1936, however, nor did all Catholics support a second term for Roosevelt. To the contrary, relations between certain prominent Catholics and members of the Roosevelt administration were strained. Even many of Roosevelt's Catholic admirers, for example, disapproved of aspects of his foreign policy, specifically, the way he and his appointees handled anti-Catholic discrimination practiced by the Mexican government. Closer to home, Al Smith, a supporter of Roosevelt during the 1932 campaign after he himself had lost the nomination, defected from the party in 1936 and actively campaigned against the president's reelection. The New Deal, Smith felt, represented an excessive expansion of the power of the central government, and he publicly fought for the preservation of states' rights.
Smith's January 1936 "American Liberty League Speech" at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. attacked Roosevelt as "communist-oriented." Some Catholic newspaper editors agreed with these charges, and launched similar attacks on Roosevelt and his policies in their pages. Patrick Scanlan of the Brooklyn Tablet, characterized by Father John Ryan as "'a professional 'Roosevelt hater'" is one of the more well-known of these.9 Roosevelt's popularity, Scanlan claimed, was on the decline due to continued unemployment and misdirected and excessive government spending. The Boston Pilot, another Catholic newspaper, similarly believed the New Deal represented an excessive use of government power. Bureaucratic growth, it charged, would lead to one-man rule.
Perhaps the increase in criticism of Roosevelt after his election was inevitable. After all, by 1936 the president possessed an actual record of national activity on which voters could pass judgment. The New Deal programs signed into law represented a relatively radical expansion of government power. The early stages of this program entailed aiding the most economically desperate and preventing further disintegration of the economy. Hence, the temporary closure of banks ("bank holiday") and passage of the Emergency Banking Act in 1933, aimed at preventing the complete collapse of the banking system. Other legislation, such as the Glass Steagall Act sought to stabilize the banking system by federally insuring bank deposits (thereby preventing the bank "runs" that caused them to run out of money and collapse). The Federal Emergency Relief Act (1933) distributed desperately needed dollars to the unemployed. The Civil Works Administration (1933) established public works jobs for millions of unemployed workers, as did the 1935 Works Progress Administration, which ultimately employed 8.5 million people in a range of public works projects. Rural projects included the Rural Electrification Commission (1935) and the Tennessee Valley Authority (1933), which sought to bring electricity to rural areas and farms. The Social Security Act (1935) established unemployment insurance and old age pensions toward long term improvement of the problem of poverty among the elderly. More comprehensively, the National Industrial Recovery Act (1933) established the National Recovery Administration (NRA). The NRA sought to set up "codes of fair competititon" that would establish minimum wages, weekly working hours, and a set pricing system.
There was a range of Catholic perspectives on these matters, as suggested above. Two of the most powerful Catholic voices on the Roosevelt presidency and the New Deal were those of Fathers Charles E. Coughlin (1891-1979) and John A. Ryan (1869-1945).