Historian Re-examines the 1932 Election

Posted December 18, 2007 at 4:45pm

As the 2008 presidential election kicks into high gear, Donald Ritchie, an associate historian at the U.S. Senate Historical Office, can offer reflections on another critical election.

In his latest book, “Electing FDR: The New Deal Campaign of 1932,” he examines in great detail the race between Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover and Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

“[It] was a major turning point in American history in the 20th century,” Ritchie said in an interview, adding that the recent book is one in a series on key elections. “I look at why Hoover lost and why Roosevelt won.”

The race took place just three years after the stock market crash of 1929, when the United States had fallen into an economic depression.

“The ferocity of the Great Depression forced the American people to re-evaluate their expectations of government and their party loyalties,” Ritchie wrote in the book. “Voters elected the New Deal without knowing precisely what it meant or where Roosevelt would lead, gambling on his promise of a flexible, compassionate, liberal approach to resolve the economic crisis and construct a more secure society.”

Roosevelt managed to strike a chord with voters with the tone of his campaign, Ritchie observed. “Roosevelt campaigned on hope and Hoover resorted to campaigning on fear,” the historian noted.

According to Ritchie, Ronald Reagan voted for FDR and was particularly struck by his campaign. When Reagan ran for president in 1980, he ran on a positive and uplifting platform, much like Roosevelt did in 1932.

“Newspapers referred to [Reagan] as Franklin Delano Reagan,” Ritchie said.

For years after the 1932 election, the Democratic Party used Hoover as a weapon against the GOP. In 2004, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) accused President Bush of being the first president since Hoover to have a net job loss.

Throughout the book, Ritchie examines the role that media had in the race. For the first time in history, radio was accessible to the masses and had a significant influence in the election.

“Ironically, a voter in ’32 had a better chance of hearing a whole speech” than a voter today, Ritchie said, noting that television news and sound bites only give people snippets of speeches. After his election, Roosevelt went on to use the radio to give his fireside chats during his four terms as president.

While researching the election, Ritchie discovered that prior to facing off for the presidency, Roosevelt and Hoover had been good friends. The men met every Sunday night with mutual friends, some of whom hoped the two would run on the same ticket. After the election was over, the two were never friends again.

“They practically didn’t speak to each other riding from the White House to the Capitol [on the day of Roosevelt’s inauguration] and [they] never spoke again,” Ritchie said.