In 1932, voters swept Franklin Roosevelt into the White House desperately hoping the Democrat could rescue the country from the ravages of the Great Depression. After four years, the depression continued to rage. Critics lambasted the New Deal as a failed waste of money while pundits wrote off Roosevelt’s re-election effort. However, FDR connected with the people who appreciated his efforts. Against all odds, Roosevelt won a smashing re-election victory over Kansas Governor Alf Landon.
When Franklin Roosevelt entered office, he initiated a dizzying reform agenda. His “New Deal” promised happier days. Despite the barrage of government programs and unprecedented spending, the depression continued to rage and would not end until World War II. Between 1932 and 1936, government expenditures increased more than 50% while unemployment and poverty remained high. Roosevelt’s lack of success provided campaign fodder for his Republican opponents.
Kansas Governor Alf Landon served as President Roosevelt’s opponent in 1936. The G.O.P. attacked Roosevelt’s program as a failure and promised to overturn the New Deal. Although the economy did improve somewhat between 1932 and 1936, the unemployment rate continued to hover around 17% and the poverty rate peaked at 22%. Some historians now contend the New Deal prolonged the Great Depression. Whatever the case, an extreme number of Americans remained out of work and the Great Depression continued.
Despite the lack of success, President Roosevelt threw himself into the re-election effort. FDR completely ignored Landon and blamed the Republicans for the economic downturn. The president’s communication skills, as opposed to his record, proved his best weapon. Despite being a patrician, Roosevelt somehow managed to connect with the average voter. This is no small feat considering his aristocratic accent and air. However, his bout with polio in the twenties transformed him from essentially an empty suit into a master politician empathetic to everyday struggles.
By every historic metric, FDR should have lost in 1936. A poor economy generally dooms incumbents. Most major newspapers endorsed Landon because the New Deal failed to end the depression. Public opinion polls predicted a Landon landslide. However, polling was in its infancy and included an inordinate number of Republicans in the sample. On a side note, George Gallup predicted Roosevelt’s victory using more scientific polling methods.
Despite the depression, extreme poverty, and high unemployment, Roosevelt won a smashing re-election victory. The president polled nearly 61% of the popular vote, won 46 states, and totaled 523 electoral votes. Governor Landon won just two states and 8 electoral votes. The people appreciated Roosevelt’s efforts and felt he truly cared for them. As a result, they overwhelmingly supported the New Deal’s continuation.
As of 1936, Roosevelt’s success laid not in economic statistics. In fact, World War II rescued the American economy after nearly a decade of the New Deal. Instead, he provided hope to the hopeless, rescued the banks from complete collapse, and steered the U.S. away from left and right extremes. Although many did not realize it, FDR rescued the capitalist system and American way.
The 1936 presidential election serves as a statistical outlier. President Roosevelt is the only sitting president to survive a contested re-election bid during dire economic times. FDR’s political success and ability to identify with the average American insulated him from normal historical forces. The people loved him, trusted him, and believed in him. As a result, he won a landslide re-election where mortal politicians would have failed.