The weakest candidate field ever? Maybe not

Peter Holden

Article Highlights

  • Has one of our major parties ever had a weaker field of candidates when its chance to win seemed so good? Yes: the Democratic party in 1932

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  • Only one of the current candidates has demonstrated the ability to run ahead of his party any time recently: Jon Huntsman

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  • We must hope that at least one of these candidates has greater strengths and virtues than are now apparent #GOP2012

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Has one of our two major parties ever had a weaker field of presidential candidates in a year when its prospects for victory seemed so great? That question was posed to me by another journalist in conversation today.

My answer, after hemming and hawing a bit, was yes: the Democratic party in 1932. Its prospects for victory were excellent by just about any measure. The gross national product had declined by 56% in four years, the unemployment rate had risen from 4% to 24% and banks were failing and wiping out depositors. We don’t know the job approval rating of the incumbent president, Republican Herbert Hoover, since the first random sample poll was not conducted until October 1935, but it surely was a lot lower than Barack Obama’s approval rating today. In the 1930 offyear elections Republicans lost 8 seats in the Senate and 53 seats in the House of Representatives; when the House convened in December (the regular schedule under the Constitution as it then existed) Democrats ended up with a majority there after a special election caused by the death of Texas Republican Henry Wurzbach resulted in the election of Democrat Richard Kleberg. (Footnotes: Kleberg was a member of the family that owned the giant King Ranch, and as his executive assistant he hired a young schoolteacher named Lyndon Johnson.)

"We must hope that at least one of these candidates turns out to have greater strengths and virtues than are now apparent. It’s happened before." --Michael Barone

It is true that Herbert Hoover entered the presidency with much more going for him than Barack Obama. Hoover was elected by a 58%-41% margin over New York Governor Al Smith in 1928, a significantly better result than Obama’s 53%-46% victory. And he had a record of accomplishment as food relief administrator in Europe and in Russia during and after World War I and as an outstanding Secretary of Commerce in the Harding and Coolidge administrations. He energetically organized relief from the huge Mississippi River floods in 1927 and, as a statistics buff, did much to create the excellent and politically independent government statistical agencies (which, however, provided numbers which showed the depth of the Great Depression.

Obviously this was a golden opportunity for the Democratic party. But its field of candidates looked weak at the time. Al Smith was running again, but his Catholicism had cost him many ordinarily Democratic votes in the South and Midwest in 1928 and it seemed possible that it might do so again. House Speaker John Nance Garner was running, an unpleasant figure from the South (which produced no presidents between Zachary Taylor and Lyndon Johnson) whose major policy was to increase taxes at a time of depression. Sharing his Southern background was Harry Byrd, who had served one term as governor of Virginia. Maryland Governor Albert Ritchie was a favorite of Baltimore newspaperman H. L. Mencken but of few others. Former Secretary of War and Cleveland Mayor Newton Baker was seen as a dark horse candidate, but he was a colorless and little known figure.

Of course we all know who the Democrats did nominate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and we know that Roosevelt turned out to be a great or at least a formidable president (a great wartime president in my view, but certainly undeniably a formidable president whatever you think of his decisions and policies). But that wasn’t clear at the time. He had served seven years as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the Wilson administration and four years as Governor of New York. But many considered him a lightweight, profiting on the fact that he was a distant cousin (his wife Eleanor was a closer cousin) of Theodore Roosevelt, a president considered great enough at that time to be worthy of being depicted on Mount Rushmore and the winner of the largest percentage of the popular vote for president of any candidate between 1820 and 1920. Theodore Roosevelt had written several impressive books (his account of the naval War of 1812 is still considered authoritative) before he was elected president and had resigned as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to serve in combat in the Spanish American war at age 39. Franklin Roosevelt had written no books before 1932 and had stayed in the same civilian post rather than enlist at 38 when the United States entered World War I.

Franklin Roosevelt was the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1920 when the ticket lost by a 60%-34% margin to the Republican ticket of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, and Roosevelt nearly lost the 1928 governor election to Republican Albert Ottinger. Few journalists espied greatness in him. He was “Roosevelt Minor” to Mencken, who wrote, “No one, in fact, really likes Roosevelt, not even his ostensible friends, and no one quite trusts him.” Walter Lippmann, who supported the Democratic party as editorial page editor of the New York World in the 1920s, and who had known Roosevelt for more than a dozen years, described him as “a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president.”  

Roosevelt did win 44% of the votes in the presidential primaries, but lost Illinois to red-whiskered Senator J. Hamilton Lewis, heavily Catholic Massachusetts to Al Smith, not-yet-lefty California to John Nance Garner (the favorite of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst) and, most improbably, Ohio to Oklahoma Senator Alfalfa Bill Murray. At the Democratic National Convention he won 58% of the votes on the first ballot, but the Democratic party then required its nominees to win a two-thirds majority and Roosevelt gained that only on the fourth ballot thanks to Garner (who was nominated for vice president) and Hearst (who came to hate the New Deal and Roosevelt’s foreign policy as well).

Why did the Democratic party have such a weak field (as people then saw it) in a year when its prospects were so good? One reason is that its last national administration, that of Woodrow Wilson, had left few people behind of presidential caliber; the same might be said for the Republicans this year of the much more recent administration of George W. Bush. Another reason is that Democrats won relatively few elections between 1920 and 1932 and that most of its major elected officials were either Catholics or Southerners, both of whom were widely seen as unelectable (an impression strengthened by Smith’s defeat in 1928).

The situation is not quite the same as that of this year’s Republicans, but 2006 and 2008 were harrowing election years for Republicans, leaving them with a field of candidates only one of whom has demonstrated the ability to run ahead of his party any time recently. Mitt Romney chose not to run for reelection in 2006; Rick Santorum did seek reelection that year and was beaten 59%-41% in the target state of Pennsylvania. Newt Gingrich hasn’t won an election since 1998, when he was reelected in a heavily Republican district in suburban Atlanta; Ron Paul and Rick Perry have been reelected in heavily Republican Texas; Michele Bachmann ran behind basic party strength in her district in 2006 and 2008 and roughly even with it in 2010. The only one to run ahead of party was Jon Huntsman when he was reelected governor in 2008 in Utah, which by many measures is the nation’s most Republican state.

You can say a lot of bad things about this Republican field. One example is this invective from a blogpost from my friend Paul Rahe, which omits Ron Paul only to eviscerate him further and at much greater length:

“In a time of crisis, when Americans are more ready than at any time in my lifetime to return to their roots and embrace the cause of limited government, there is no one in the Presidential race of obvious stature, demonstrated competence, and evident eloquence who is willing and able to articulate the case for limited government. What we have, instead, are a tongue-tied Governor from Texas who knows next to nothing about the national government; a Congresswoman who has never even chaired a committee, who cannot hold onto staff, who commands no support from among her colleagues, and who is apt to descend into demagoguery; a two-term former Senator who lost his seat by a margin of 18% and commands no support from among his former colleagues; a disgraced former Speaker of the House with a taste for adultery, an admiration for the ‘model’ on which Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were based, and a penchant for embracing the latest left-liberal fads; and a one-term former Governor with a gift for losing elections who pioneered the program on which Obamacare is modeled and who thinks the individual mandate a policy that conservatives should adopt.”

I am not inclined to be so harsh, and Paul has on different occasions had soothing things to say about at least some of the candidates he scalds here.

My point is this. The 2012 Republican field does indeed look weak, at a time of great opportunity for the party. But so did the 1932 Democratic field. We can try to learn as much about these candidates as we can, but we cannot foresee the future. We must hope that at least one of these candidates turns out to have greater strengths and virtues than are now apparent. It’s happened before.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.

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