How Not to Campaign During a Depression

a | A

In late August 1932, George Foster Peabody, a major figure in railway and electric-power development, wrote a letter to the New York Times, criticizing President Herbert Hoover's response to the Great Depression. Peabody’s conclusion was stark: “I am thus thoroughly convinced that Mr. Hoover is incompetent.”

Meanwhile, support for New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic presidential candidate, was growing. The Economist wrote: “Mr. Roosevelt has plunged boldly into the trenches and is arousing enthusiasm by the energy of his personal raids on the enemy's lines.”

The New York Times echoed this view: “The Democrats are on the offensive. . . . The Republicans have yet to bring up their heavy artillery.”

Hoover had planned to campaign from the White House, but the success of Roosevelt’s Western tour forced him out of Washington. Hoover delivered his first campaign speech in his home state, Iowa, on Oct. 4, just five weeks before Election Day.

After he noted that he was born during the 1874 depression, Hoover got down to brass tacks about the current economic crisis:

We have fought an unending war against the effect of these calamities upon our people. . . . We have battled to provide a supply of credits to merchants and farmers and industries. We have fought to retard falling prices. . . . Let no man tell you that it could not be worse. It could be so much worse, that these days now, distressing as they are, would look like veritable prosperity. . . . I shall continue the fight.

Stern words delivered in combative language. But would it be enough?

While Hoover presented himself as too busy fighting the Depression from the White House to waste precious time campaigning for re-election, Roosevelt took an engaged approach to campaigning, traveling thousands of miles and delivering scores of public addresses to huge crowds.

At a speech in Indianapolis on Oct. 20, he appeared calm, clear and confident of victory. He said:

My friends, we are passing through no ordinary campaign. It is my belief that this campaign marks the beginning of a new deal in American politics and in the conduct of American Government. The American people, conservative and peace loving, have had an experience under the present Republican leadership that they do not wish to continue.

Roosevelt said Hoover’s policies represented a “brood of disaster-producing gambles with national prosperity." Instead, he promised:

It will be the purpose of the new administration to bring order out of this chaos, to institute sound and progressive and humane policies, to repair the damage that has been wrought, to return, if you will, the people of the United States to the ways of economic soundness and a more widely distributed prosperity.

The Economist ruled the election's outcome decided: “No Republican candidate at this late stage of the campaign has ever looked so badly beaten as Mr. Hoover.” How right that was.

(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.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author of this story:
Philip Scranton at