A Turning Point in American Politics: The Election of 1920

by Steven Dugan

Every four years, Americans go through the important ritual of choosing candidates to run for public office; none perhaps more important than president of the United States. Political scientists and media pundits will analyze all of the pertinent polls, track the economy, listen to debates, and discuss a variety of tangible (and intangible) reasons about which way Americans may vote. In recent years, voters have had to deal with scandals, misinformation, and character issues that seem ever-present due to the immediate nature of social media.

Here’s the story of an American election that has been called a turning point in American politics. It ended a period of social reforms at home and an active foreign policy. It began a period of conservativism in both the political and social life of the nation. A reporter from the Baltimore Sun wrote, “The majority of Americans are tired of idealism. They want capitalism—openly and without apology.” One candidate pushed for lower taxes and strict immigration laws; while the other wanted to continue their party’s commitment to their progressive principles of social and economic justice.

Other contributing factors included a recent economic boom that had collapsed; arguments over treaties; and wars and revolutions abroad. Closer to home, immigration was a hot topic; incidents of civil and not so civil disobedience were occurring; and there was a growing fear of radicals and terror attacks in the United States. Disillusionment was an oft-used buzzword to describe the feeling of the electorate. The big question for voters was, “Do we vote to protect America first, or continue to participate in the global community of the last administration?”

By now, some of you may have figured out that I’m writing about the Presidential Election of 1920! The campaign was between Ohio governor James Cox for the Democrats, and Republican senator Warren G. Harding, also from Ohio, and who emerged as the winner. This was an important election. It was the first national election after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, allowing women the right to vote in all 48 states.

This August, 1923 edition of California-Outdoors and In, highlights President Harding’s upcoming visit to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on his trip to western states that summer. Before his death in San Francisco, Los Angeles was scheduled to be his last stop on the tour. From the Homestead Museum Collection.


Early in 1920, the entire nation knew about President Wilson’s debilitating stroke, and many expressed grave concerns about his fitness for office. The Republican Party took advantage of that; the recent economic collapse; the fight to join the League of Nations; and the strikes and terrorist actions from within the country to promote an “America First” platform; which in part relied on American isolationism. But despite the appearance of a united front, when the Republicans held their convention it was a wide-open affair, with eleven candidates vying for the nomination. It wasn’t until the tenth ballot, in a smoke-filled room (really!), that the compromise ticket of Harding and Calvin Coolidge was negotiated.

For the incumbent Democrats, the road to the nomination was even more tumultuous.  President Wilson attempted to prevent any candidate from gaining a majority of votes, hoping the party would ask him to run for a third term—despite being uncommunicative, partially paralyzed, and living in seclusion. This ploy was soon abandoned. Seventeen candidates sought the nomination and James Cox was eventually nominated on the 44th ballot (in another smoke-filled room, no doubt).  Former Assistant Navy Secretary Franklin Delano Roosevelt was chosen as his running mate. The party platform was mostly a continuation of the platform of the Wilson presidency; there weren’t many drastic differences.

The election resulted in an Electoral College landslide (404-127) for Harding and a popular vote margin of victory (26.2 points) that still ranks the highest since James Monroe ran unopposed in 1820. The people had spoken: a change was warranted. The Republicans celebrated the death of American participation in the League of Nations; the Democrats mourned the defeat of the idealism of the Wilson presidency.

Harding served less than two-and-a-half years as president when he died of a heart attack on August 2, 1923.  After his death the scandals that defined his short presidency began to unravel, such as the Teapot Dome Scandal, influence peddling in the Justice Department, and his extra-marital affair with Nan Britton which produced a child. His reputation has been sullied ever since.

Currently, America is near the end of a most unusual presidential election cycle, with some of the same issues voters faced in 1920. Are the circumstances between the two elections exactly alike? No, but we can look at the 1920 election to help us understand how voters today react to such things as the economy; taxes; immigration; being part of the global community; and the incumbent party, as well as their reactions to the almost daily dose of partisan information dispensed on social media. I’m confident that future students of history will use the 1920 election to understand the 2016 race, and vice versa.

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