Adlai Stevenson II: Presidential Campaign & Political Views

Instructor: Mary Ruth Sanders Bracy

Mary Ruth teaches college history and has a PhD.

In this lesson, we will learn about the presidential campaigns of Adlai Stevenson II, the Democratic Party's nominee in 1952 and 1956. Even though he was roundly defeated both times, Stevenson's legacy lives on.

Adlai Stevenson II

Can you imagine losing at something, very badly, and then picking it up and doing it again? That's what happened to Adlai Stevenson II when he ran for president against Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Stevenson was the Democratic Party's nominee for the first time in 1952. He lost that election, but ran again in 1956...and lost again! Even though he was defeated, Stevenson's influence lived on. Let's look at his two presidential campaigns and his political views.

A 1952 Adlai Stevenson Campaign Ad
Stevenson Campaign Ad

Campaign of 1952

It was a pretty good time to be a Democrat in 1952. Two other important Democratic presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, had just shepherded the United States through the Great Depression and World War II. And in 1952, for the first time in nearly 20 years, there would not be an incumbent president in the White House. Truman was term-limited and could not serve again.

The question of who the Democrats would nominate was important because the Republican candidate was Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower was a major World War II hero. He was the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe and planned the D-Day invasion that changed the course of the war. He was very popular, while Stevenson, the Governor of Illinois, was not as well-known.

In fact, Stevenson did not even want the nomination for president! Instead, he was drafted by the Democratic Party at their nominating convention. Once he was nominated, he campaigned vigorously for the Democratic Party's ideas and platform. In 1952, the Democratic Party campaigned on two things that very clearly made them different from the Republican Party:

  1. Support for labor unions (Democrats called for the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, which placed limitations on what labor unions could and could not do.)
  2. Continuing the Korean War (They wanted to end American involvement in the anti-communist war in Korea, which Eisenhower had pledged to end.)

Stevenson himself was a political reformer, and the Democrats hoped that his reputation in Illinois could translate nationwide.

It did not translate. Stevenson was viewed by many as a liberal elite, nerdy and aloof, while Eisenhower was a man of the people, a hero, and very popular. Stevenson could not overcome Eisenhower's popularity and lost the 1952 election by a huge margin: roughly 6 million popular votes. As a result, Eisenhower carried 442 Electoral College delegates, while Stevenson only received 89 of their votes.

Results of the 1952 Presidential Election
1952 Election Map

Campaign of 1956

The Democrats and Stevenson decided to try again four years later. This time, Stevenson campaigned for and won the nomination, saying after accepting the nomination at the convention that ''Four years ago, I stood in this same place and uttered these same words to you. But four years ago I did not seek the honor you have bestowed upon me. This time, as you may have noticed, it was not entirely unsolicited. And there's another big difference. That time we lost. This time we will win!''

During this election, Stevenson struggled to position himself opposite from Eisenhower because the two parties agreed on many major issues. They agreed on the need for strong national security, for promoting peace internationally, and for support for the United Nations and NATO.

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