How Maine Scared the Republican Party

In early September 1932, New Hampshire Republican Senator George Moses concluded that President Herbert Hoover’s re-election was certain. A “hard fight” lay ahead, he told the New York Times, but he predicted Hoover could count on a minimum of 288 Electoral College votes, 22 more than a majority.

Such conservative optimism was short-lived. Hoover’s challenger, Democratic New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt, soon announced a 20-day, 20-state tour across the upper Midwest, down the Pacific Coast and back through Denver, Milwaukee and Detroit.

Differences in campaign styles said much about the two men, and about the pivotal national moment in which they found themselves.

Roosevelt hoped his trip would expose voters directly to his “New Deal” economic ideas and to his spontaneous eloquence and intense energy. The trip also was intended to rally Democratic politicians and distressed Republicans while countering a “whispering campaign” that, as a polio survivor, Roosevelt was too fragile to lead and would not live out his term.

Hoover had chosen not to tour, instead saying he would offer “two or three speeches” in the coming months outlining his administration’s achievements.

But Republican confidence turned to fear when Maine held its peculiar early election. The state had voted in a mid-September election for governor, Congress and local offices since 1820, going to the polls again in November for president. Democrats rarely won in the September state races, but when they did, Republicans knew to expect a tough national fight for president.

That year, conservative Maine unexpectedly elected Democrats as governor and as two of its three representatives. These victories generated a meltdown among the Republican Party’s national leaders.

“The Maine election had demoralized them to a point where they forgot their political breeding, a remarkable fact,” the New York Times reported. “The President fired a telegram to the national chairman, demanding stronger effort. Cabinet Ministers rushed into the White House with faces whiter than the walls and came out looking glum.”

Meanwhile, Roosevelt was touring the West, and “the vibrations of the cheers of thousands rattled the Republican seismographs in New York, Chicago and the capital,” the Times reported.

Roosevelt savored his trip. “We have had everything in the world -- enthusiasm and interest -- except sleep, and that is because of the interest and the enthusiasm,” he said in a speech. “But it presents problems, my friends. What is a poor fellow to do at 4 o’clock in the morning when he hears the crowd waiting around the windows of the stateroom and hears them say, ‘Come on out, Governor,’ . . .  and then the crowd says, ‘Come on out, Governor; if you don't come out, we’ll vote for Hoover.’"

In an interview before he left for his trip, Roosevelt had said the presidency was neither an administrative nor an engineering job.

“The President should personify government to the citizen, should express the ideas germinating, ready for realization, in the popular mind,” he said. “It is preeminently a place of moral leadership. All our great Presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified.”

This was plainly one of those times, and sleepless nights would now become a Republican routine that fall.

(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the history of industry and technology at Rutgers University, 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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