This is the fourth article in my Biggest Losers series, profiling the most spectacularly unsuccessful Presidential candidates in American history. The previous BL’s: Greeley (1872), McGovern (1972), Parker (1904).
When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1932 and began the New Deal to try to stabilize the country during the Great Depression, Republicans and business leaders hated it. I mean, they really, really hated it. While it might be a stretch to say that conservative animosity toward FDR compares to the white-hot loathing of Barack Obama by modern conservatives, it’s not much of one. Suffice it to say that by 1936 Republicans were itching for the chance to defeat Roosevelt and render the New Deal a historic aberration. There was just one problem: FDR was quite popular, and no one in the Republican Party really seemed to have a chance to beat him.
Nevertheless, they gave it the old college try. Popular Idaho Senator William Borah seemed the best choice, or at least the guy whose proverbial number was up. During the spring of 1936 he won a series of Republican primaries and packed his bags for the Cleveland convention with some confidence. But Borah was 71 years old and thought to be too progressive by many Republicans. The party regulars really liked Alfred M. Landon, the one-term governor of Kansas. Known as Alf–no 1980s TV sitcom jokes, please–Landon had his own political hacks behind the scenes, and he thought that they could easily corral the delegates away from Borah and secure the nomination for himself.
Landon was a pro-business, lower-taxes conservative, but he certainly wasn’t a ferocious fire-breather against FDR. The only Republican governor to win office in the Democratic sweep of 1932, Landon sought to help the Depression-suffering farmers of his own state as best he could, even with direct aid from government. He supported certain aspects of the New Deal, and he’d had a puzzling falling-out with former President Herbert Hoover, the man FDR defeated. This probably helped him with Republicans and voters. Hoover’s pathetic inaction in the early days of the Depression made him toxic to just about everybody. Landon asserted, however, that the New Deal was generally hostile to business. He also charged that Roosevelt was gathering too much executive power. These issues certainly played well with the conservative base.
FDR was so confident of being re-elected in 1936 that his campaign only paid for one ad–this one in New Hampshire. (Okay, I’m kidding).
The Republican Convention, which could have provided some drama, turned out to be a snooze. Landon’s cachet with the party hacks and his support among big business donors allowed him to steamroll Borah and clinch the nomination on the first ballot. He picked Frank Knox–an influential newspaper editor who held no public office–as his running mate. Despite the Landon buzz among Republicans, by midsummer it was pretty clear that the ticket had very little chance of unseating Roosevelt. The Democratic convention in Philadelphia was a rousing coronation for FDR. Landon was going to have to pull out all the stops to make any traction.
This he just couldn’t do. Landon wasn’t cut out for what Bill Clinton would later call “retail politics.” Indeed, for two months after the convention in late June, Landon made no campaign appearances whatsoever, sparking comedians to joke that he should be classified as a missing person. Landon wasn’t too comfortable speaking for himself and preferred to let party surrogates handle most of the dirty-work. Ironically, Republicans who barnstormed and whistle-stopped on Landon’s behalf usually vacillated between attacking Roosevelt personally, and railing against Social Security which had been passed the year before. Landon himself liked Roosevelt, and his party ran (quietly, to be sure) on a plank actually endorsing Social Security. It’s difficult to imagine anyone among FDR’s seasoned and savvy crew of political advisers losing much sleep over Alf Landon.
This pro-Landon cartoon is believed to be the first campaign advertisement in animated movie form. You can tell from this pretty limp effort that their hearts just weren’t in it.
Because of Landon’s listlessness–and his reluctance to appear in public–the fall campaign was also a snooze. Indeed its most noteworthy feature involved not Landon or anything he did, but a poll from a magazine. In 1936, elections at the state level weren’t all perfectly synchronized with each other. The state of Maine, for instance, voted in September. When Maine’s election returns began to come in, two months earlier than everyone else’s, Republicans including Landon did very well. In fact Landon won Maine. Just after these early results, the Literary Digest did a straw poll of its readers to predict who would win the election. After tallying the results, Literary Digest confidently predicted that Landon would be the overwhelming winner.
There were three problems with the Literary Digest poll. One was that Maine was a heavily Republican state to begin with, and the appearance of a landslide win there for Landon may have influenced many responders. Second, the poll was voluntary, meaning that readers had to take affirmative action to send back their results by mail (as opposed to a telephone poll or other “ambush” style sampling). Thus, the respondents self-selected, and those who wanted to see FDR gone seemed to be much more motivated than others. Third, Literary Digest sent its ballots to subscribers, and also telephone subscribers and people who owned automobiles. With millions out of work in the Depression, most of the people who could still afford magazine subscriptions, phone service and cars in 1936 tended to be well-to-do, a group that could naturally be expected to favor Landon. This is what today we would called “skewed polling.” In any event, Literary Digest was blindsided; after the real election results came out the magazine went out of business.
Just how big did Landon lose in 1936? Check out the map. You almost need a magnifying glass to find the states he won.
If Literary Digest was surprised by the results, few others were–possibly not even Alf Landon. When the votes were counted Landon had been blown to atoms. FDR won over 10,000,000 more votes than Landon, carrying 46 states. Poor Alf, who even lost his home state of Kansas, wound up with Maine and Vermont, for a grand total of 8 electoral votes to Roosevelt’s 523. There’s no way that a seasoned, responsible politician couldn’t see a landslide like this coming. For his part, Landon was gracious in defeat. He did not whimper or play petty politics. He went back to work at the Kansas state house, finishing out his gubernatorial term. Though he remained active in the Republican Party, he never held public office again.
For being such a “big loser”–the title of this series is somewhat facetious–Alf Landon achieved a tremendous amount. In the later 1930s he helped heal intra-party strife caused in part by his epic defeat, and set up the Republicans to remain a loyal opposition party through the remainder of FDR’s years in the White House. After World War II he championed progressive conservatism, often supporting Democratic positions and finding common ground. He was extraordinarily long-lived; he died at age 100 in the year 1987. His daughter, Nancy Kassebaum, served in the Senate; her husband, Howard Baker, served for a long time in politics and notably helped clean up the Reagan White House after the Iran-Contra scandal as Reagan’s Chief of Staff. Thus, Landon’s family was something of a minor political dynasty. He never got the big chair in the Oval Office, but there is a great deal in Landon’s life and career that’s quite admirable. Funny how that tends to be true of these “Biggest Losers,” isn’t it?