The Presidential Election of 1936

Instructor: Jason McCollom
In the 1936 presidential election, Democratic incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt faced an opponent named Alf and other radical candidates. Learn about the issues, outcomes, and significance of the contest, and test yourself with a quiz.

The New Deal Background

It was the beginning of the presidential election year of 1936. The sitting U.S. President, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), was very popular with the public, even though the country was still mired in the Great Depression. A campaign poster showed a drawing of FDR's smiling face, with the words 'A Real Depression Buster.' Surrounding Roosevelt on the poster were the acronyms of the many government agencies his administration created to help those suffering from the depression. His reform program, called the New Deal, was synonymous with government activism and aimed to bring hope and help to America.

President Roosevelt and his dog, Fala
President Roosevelt and his dog, Fala

The Great Depression had left millions unemployed, homeless, and hungry. Farm prices were at rock bottom. Banks shut their doors. Workers had no power. The situation was bleak. Immediately when FDR came into office in 1933, he got to work creating dozens of New Deal government programs to address these problems.

The New Deal created the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) to help farmers. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) put the unemployed to work. Social Security provided government retirement benefits. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) brought electrification to large swaths of rural America. And so on.

Though these programs and many others did not end the depression, they were popular with most Americans, brought them hope for better times, and at the very least demonstrated FDR was doing something--anything--to help them in their darkest days.

The Candidates and the Election of 1936

Roosevelt's political opponents faced an uphill battle to unseat the popular president. The comparatively conservative Republican Party (the Grand Old Party, or GOP, for short) believed that because depression conditions remained, Americans would turn against FDR. New Deal programs might be well liked, they reasoned, but the Great Depression still hung heavily over the land. For this reason, Republicans were cautiously optimistic.

The GOP nominated Kansas Governor Alfred Landon as their presidential candidate. Landon was a bit more liberal than the rest of his party, as he did support some of the New Deal programs. But in comparison with FDR, Governor Landon was a moderate. He stressed mainstream proposals to balance the federal budget (the New Deal was spending public money at a fast clip) and reduce government red tape. The Republicans were hopeful, because Landon had the support of some of the president's own party, especially conservative Democrats who felt the New Deal had gone too far. Unfortunately, Landon's nickname was 'Alf,' which is not very presidential.

Kansas Governor, and GOP Presidential candidate Alfred Landon, center, holding hat
alf

Roosevelt had challengers on the left as well. These groups argued that the New Deal did not go far enough in replacing capitalism with socialism. Leftist leaders such as Louisiana Senator Huey Long, Catholic 'radio priest' Father Charles Coughlin, and Dr. Francis Townshend all put forth radical proposals and suggested FDR was in bed with bankers, big business, and powerful corporations.

Coughlin formed the Union Party, and a U.S. Congressman from North Dakota, William Lemke, headed the presidential ticket. Lemke felt the New Deal was not doing enough to combat farm foreclosures, and he also embodied all the criticism of FDR coming from the left end of the political spectrum. There were also candidates on the socialist and communist ticket, and they made Lemke look tame by comparison.

Union Party candidate William Lemke
Union Party candidate William Lemke

Governor Landon and the GOP strategized that the Union Party and other leftist candidates would draw a significant number of votes from the FDR and the Democrats. This would then throw the election to the Republicans. The GOP owned most newspapers across the country, and they supported this theory and backed Landon.

Roosevelt met these challengers. He highlighted his New Deal programs, and positioned himself as a staunch opponent of big business and capitalist greed. The president passionately attacked his 'old enemies…business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, and class antagonism. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate. They are unanimous in their hate for me--and I welcome their hatred.'

At the same time, FDR suggested the left was too radical, and that the Democrats had a more realistic and moderate platform to help those suffering from the depression. 'It was this administration,' he reminded voters, 'which saved the system of private profit and free enterprise after it had been dragged to the brink of ruin.' Everywhere Roosevelt campaigned, large, enthusiastic crowds greeted him and cheered the New Deal.

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