Roaring: “Wonder Boy”
On The Final Presidential Election In 1920s America
“I do not chose to run for president in 1928.” So was the shocking decision by President Calvin Coolidge on Aug. 2, 1927. The public was stunned as many thought it would be an obvious decision by him to run for another elected term. After all, the economy was booming, the budget was in surplus and the president was insanely popular. Everyone was sensing yet another GOP presidential landslide was coming.
But it was a decision that many close family, friends and colleagues expected as he had told them as early as during the 1924 presidential election that he wasn’t planning on running in the next presidential race. His wife did claim to have not known of his decision, and some prominent Republicans who thought he would carry on as the face of the party for a bit longer were taken aback.
Instantly, various Republicans sensing that whoever was the nominee would likely win the general election were looking to take a shot at being on the ticket. One potential candidate, Herbert Hoover, the popular private businessman who decided to rebuff calls from Democrats to run in 1920 for the party’s nomination and instead joined the Republican party, and who had served as U.S Secretary of Commerce under both Harding and Coolidge, asked Coolidge if he was serious about not running. Coolidge never gave him a direct reply.
An Iowa native who survived a brush with death at a young age, Hoover was an orphan who lost both of his parents early in life. He would grow from circumstances to become a successful and wealthy man. He became well involved with charitable help and lead great relief efforts for Europe during and after World War I, saving literally millions from starving to death. After coming into government, Hoover ended up a well liked, if not the most respected, member of the cabinet. Indeed, he was so popular that there was a well known joke at the time that he was the under-secretary of all the cabinets. He was thus a natural candidate for the presidency come 1928.
But Coolidge himself didn’t think too highly of the man, once remarking that he did nothing but give him bad advice during his administration. He also had a nickname for him, “Wonder Boy”, and he did not mean it as a term of endearment.
Republicans met in Kansas City in the summer of 1928 for their national convention. Coming into it, the most likely candidates were looking to be former Illinois Gov. Frank Lowden (who had seen the nomination slip away from him last-minute eight years earlier), the Senate Majority Leader Charles Curtis of Kansas and the aforementioned Hoover. They were coming on the heels of some primary contests that saw Hoover under-performing and momentum behind the idea of drafting Coolidge or the vice president if a 1920-type of deadlock were to happen again.
But the feeling of a wide open contest vanished as soon as the convention was about to begin. Stunning some, Lowden decided to withdraw his name and momentum was behind Hoover. On the first ballot, Hoover easily got the nomination. Curtis for his part easily won the vice presidential ballot. The party had decided to go with the very popular cabinet member to take the torch from the very popular president. In delirium from getting the nomination, Hoover weeks later would accept the honor and declare that the country was on the verge of getting rid of poverty.
Democrats meanwhile met in Houston with not much morale in the building. After back-to-back landslide losses and the strategy of using the Teapot Dome scandal to hammer the GOP fading as the public focused more on prosperity, the feeling among many within the party was they were likely headed towards another defeat. Many top would-be candidates for nomination decided not to run, including former top contender William Gibbs McAdoo, who came inches from getting the nomination in 1920 and 1924.
The feeling was that the contest could be wide open just as it had been at the last two conventions. However, the party was starting to become split on the issue of Prohibition with northern wets and southern drys. Also, the racial issues that were beginning to divide parts of the party and were a major factor in 1924 had not gone away. The party establishment decided to get behind a candidate early to avoid another almost indefinite round of ballots.
They chose Sen. Joseph Taylor Robinson from Arkansas. A generic southern Democrat who would in time become Senate Majority Leader and a key ally to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Robinson was seen as a respectable choice who could keep the party united in likely defeat and hold off some down-ballot damage.
The convention delegates had other ideas.
One common also-ran decided to go for the nomination once again: New York Gov. Al Smith. He was an out and proud wet; he was also part of a new face for the party — an urbanized and more cosmopolitan coalition. He was nicknamed “The Happy Warrior” and could gather a loyal following. That following, his name recognition and likely defeat made some open to experimenting helped Smith easily win the nomination on the first ballot. Robinson, the establishment pick, was chosen as his running-mate to balance the ticket.
As a Northerner with a vision of having the coalition be more open to urban demographics, as a wet on the Prohibition debate and as someone who was alien to the Democratic party’s solid southern base, Smith was already a gamble to divide the party. But one major problem Smith faced was that he would be the first major party nominee to be Catholic, putting him at odds with a vast majority of key voters of the then-Democratic base.
The 1928 presidential election campaign in hindsight was a key point for both parties’ future coalitions. The Republican campaign would begin a decades long path for the GOP to make inroads into the South, and the Democratic campaign would begin to make cities a crucial part to the party’s base.
Anti-Catholic attitudes dominated and haunted the Smith candidacy. Already a long-shot, he faced opposition from the anti-Catholic KKK, which at the time were an extremist faction of the Democratic party. In the south, and some parts up north, various protestants feared Smith would be taking orders from the Pope. Its not unlike some attitudes John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, would face in his close 1960 election.
With a big victory already almost assured, the Hoover campaign seized the idea of ambitiously expanding the already Republican-dominated electoral map. In what was termed “A lily-white southern strategy,” Hoover’s team wanted to use the divides in the southern base of the Democratic party as a chance to start picking off the then-bluest part of the country.
But as Hoover tried to win some southern states, Smith was sowing the seeds for the New Deal coalition. Smith made plays for New England communities, where many Catholics identified with him. He also used his popularity in New York, then a major swing state that Republicans had been able to win easily on the presidential level of late, to make that state’s electoral college votes competitive again. He won the New York Times’ presidential endorsement as well.
But while each campaign targeted a different new set of voters, the key votes were arguably the rest of the country. Among those voters all that was mainly on their mind was “The Coolidge Prosperity.” Their wallets were full, the country was at peace, and there was no desperate feeling of need for change.
On election day, Hoover’s southern strategy had worked. That, alongside the country being happy with the state of things, led to a third straight Republican presidential landslide just as everyone figured would happen for some time. Hoover won all the key swing states and voters, alongside pulling off close to competitive upsets in Texas, Tennessee and Virginia. He also won the then-blue states of Florida and Kentucky in landslides. In total, Hoover won 40 states to Smith’s eight, with 444 electoral college votes to 87.
But in defeat Smith pulled off some upsets himself and started regrowing the national Democratic party. He pulled off close victories in then-Republican New England, winning in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. He also came close to flipping his home state of New York which had been won as a landslide for Coolidge four years prior. The popular vote share was also an upside for Smith — the Democratic party went from getting just 29 percent of the vote four years earlier to 41 percent, the best showing by them nationally since 12 years prior in Woodrow Wilson’s close 1916 re-election.
Hoover ignored geopolitical changes that were happening in urban parts of the country as he went for new voters in the south. Smith had divided his party’s base but began to make inroads for his party into the cities and build a brand new base for his party that would go on to arguably last to this day. Hoover got the victory, but Smith had begun to build something long term that the next Democratic nominee, Franklin Roosevelt, would ride to the most dominant electoral streak in presidential history.
Hoover entered office on March 4, 1929. It was the first inauguration to be recorded by newsreels. He was inheriting a prosperous nation in peace time and leadership of a political party at a peak that would not be matched by them for almost another century. Times were good, people were happy and the incoming president was just as popular as the outgoing one. Hoover’s pledge to continue the prosperity and aim for an end to poverty was highlighted in his speech. “Wonder Boy” had achieved the White House.
But as the inauguration ceremonies let on, a cloudy sky and fog descended onto the capital. In hindsight, it would be an omen of things to come. The Roaring Twenties had one last ugly surprise for history. The party was about to come to a screeching halt, and “Wonder Boy” would be stuck in the middle of all the blame.