Re-election with a bad economy

Jul 30 2011 - 6:33pm

It is repeatedly asserted that unless the unemployment numbers improve the Republicans will win the presidency in 2012. But the outcome of the 1936 election suggests that that is not necessarily so.

In the aftermath of World War I (1914-1918) there was social turbulence. The public's desire to "return to normalcy" resulted in three conservative Republicans presidents from 1921 to 1933. Taxes for the wealthy were cut and inequality increased in the 1920s.

In October 1929, seven months after Republican Herbert Hoover became president, the stock market crashed and that triggered falling prices which discouraged people from buying. People have a tendency to postpone buying houses, cars or other items they do not urgently need today if they expect it to be cheaper in the future. Falling prices meant that store inventories were not being purchased and so businesses responded by laying off workers and producing fewer inventories.

When the laid-off workers reduced their purchases that also meant that inventories would not be purchased and that more workers would have to be laid off. The shrinking economy was made worse by the states and localities -- which at the time did 80 percent of government spending -- balancing their budgets. The fact is, balanced budgets shrink an economy when it can least afford it. As government revenues drastically shrank, teachers and government workers were laid off and this further reduced demand. This gives an idea of why private business investment fell by 91 percent from 1929-1933.

During this freefall, Hoover attempted to restore business confidence by pushing balanced budgets and promising good times were just around the corner. Although Hoover had several programs to bolster the economy, he was from a Quaker background and felt that reliance on volunteerism was preferable to involving the national government in job creation, even though unemployment was 25 percent. In the 1932 election Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) easily defeated Hoover.

FDR created numerous government programs to combat unemployment. Yet, as the 1936 election neared there were multiple reasons to expect FDR to be decisively crushed:

* Democrats had won big in 1932 and 1934, but their control of both the executive and legislative branches had not restored the kind of growth the economy had previously experienced. For most of FDR's term, unemployment had been over 20 percent -- well over twice what it is now. In 1936, it was still 17 percent. The country had been preoccupied with a bad economy for over seven years (twice as long as today) and though FDR stopped the economic freefall, the depression continued. Many had lost patience and felt Democrats and FDR had had their chance.

* FDR was considered the most anti-business president in U.S. history. He called on Congress to "wage unceasing warfare" against "our resplendent economic autocracy" which sought "power for themselves and enslavement for the public." He encouraged Americans to keep fighting "the forces of greed and privilege." The "forces of selfishness and of lust for power" he declared are "unanimous in their hate for me -- and I welcome their hatred." Denouncing our "economic royalists" and "privileged princes," he made class warfare the central theme of the election.

* At a time when millions were going to bed hungry, FDR's programs had plowed under million of acres of crops and destroyed six million piglets and 200,000 sows.

* The powerful and well funded Liberty League compared him to Hitler and Stalin and charged that his policies were communistic.

* In May 1935 the Supreme Court unanimously declared FDR's New Deal agency the National Recovery Administration unconstitutional.

* In the 1936 election Republicans outspent Democrats $14 million to $9 million.

* Early in 1936, polls showed FDR's popularity was declining and low. The Literary Digest, which had correctly predicted each of the four previous elections, predicted FDR's opponent would win the electoral college 370-161. (The conductors of the telephone poll overlooked the fact that phone owners were disproportionately from upper classes which tended to vote Republican.)

So with the above problems how did FDR do? He arguably had the most stupendous victory in U.S. history, as an examination of its dimensions illustrate.

The book "Elections A to Z" (published by the Congressional Quarterly) states that the term "landslide" in presidential politics, "generally means more than 60 percent or more or the popular vote." By that measure there have only been four presidential landslides in all U.S. history. The four landslide winners were: Republican Hardingin 1920, Democrat FDR 1936, Democrat Johnson in 1964 and Republican Nixon in 1972. FDR's landslide garnered 60.8 percent of the popular vote and was only surpassed by President Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide which captured 61.1 percent of the vote. Johnson was fortunate to have an opponent who openly praised extremism and so the media, which had supported Republicans since 1932, supported the Democratic Johnson.

FDR's 1936 margin of victory in the Electoral College was the greatest -- bar none -- in U.S. history. He captured 98.5 percent of the electoral college. Of course, the electoral college tends to exaggerate the margin of success and poorly reflects the will of the people. In fact, since 1980 in every single election, except those involving George W. Bush, every single winner -- including President Obama -- has won over 60 percent of the electoral college. But clearly FDR's class warfare message resonated in all regions of the country.

Contrary to the view of the media and those Republicans who believe a bad economy will grease their path to power in 2012, FDR's astounding 1936 victory shows that a poor economy will not necessarily doom a re-election bid.

Jones lives in West Haven.

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