The Strange Start of FDR's 1932 Campaign: Echoes

In 1932, the Democrats' contest for the presidential nomination began on March 8th, with the New Hampshire primary. Given his later nationwide victories, Franklin D. Roosevelt  in retrospect appears as an all-but-inevitable nominee, then president.

But as spring approached in the Great Depression’s fourth year, this was far from certain.

With Republicans muttering about dumping President Herbert Hoover from their ticket, leading Democrats eagerly anticipated the general election. None was more discreetly determined than Al Smith, the party’s losing 1928 presidential standard-bearer and New York’s governor until Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1929.

Smith and FDR had been partners in New York and national politics until 1928. But once installed as governor, Roosevelt refused to take Smith’s advice, fired many of his predecessor’s appointees and brought in his own confidantes, many of whom would be active in advancing his presidential bid.

The two men became lasting antagonists, courteous in public and hostile behind the scenes.

Two oddities about the nominating contests of the era stand out. There were only a handful of primaries in 1932 (just 17, two supporting “favorite sons”). And surrogates could launch campaigns without a potential officeholder formally declaring his candidacy.

Thus, although Roosevelt's backers quietly started seeking party activists’ support in 1931, the governor didn't announce his intentions until late January 1932. Smith was yet more cagey, letting it be known in February that he “would place his cause in the hands of the people and risk his chances without making an active campaign for the nomination," according to the New York Times. Observers interpreted this as a “Stop Roosevelt” maneuver, with the first duel to take place in New Hampshire.

And a strange duel it was, for neither of the opponents visited the Granite State, nor were their names on the ballot. Instead, would-be delegates pledged to one or the other sought voters’ attention, and spokesmen such as Robert H. Jackson, secretary of the national Democratic Party (and later Supreme Court justice), addressed the faithful and helped organize get-out-the-vote drives (in Jackson’s case for FDR).

Roosevelt was the contest’s big spender, laying out $12,000 for ads, staff, buttons and posters -- more than his campaign invested in any other primary.

All sides considered the outcome critical, as six more states would choose delegates in March. Smith’s strongest support lay in the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions; before the New Hampshire vote, his backers commenced work in Vermont, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

On March 7, Roosevelt’s supporters announced that they would sweep Smith away and secure all eight convention slots. And so they did. Arthur Krock, reporting for the New York Times, captured the moment: “Silence descended today on the Democratic politicians who favor a presidential candidate other than Governor Roosevelt of New York.”

As in 2012, the battle wasn't over. But betting against Roosevelt clearly wasn’t prudent.

(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the History of Industry and Technology at the University of Rutgers at Camden and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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