On This Day: The Presidential Election of 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Following up on my colleague Steve Dugan’s very interesting post about the 1920s presidential election, today’s post is about the campaign of 1928, for which election day was on 6 November, 88 years ago today.


The opponents were Republican Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover and Democratic governor of New York Alfred Smith.  The Republican Party rode very high with the electorate during the two previous campaigns of the Twenties, handily winning both 1920 (as Steve noted, one of the biggest landslides in American history) and in 1924 (in which Calvin Coolidge swamped Democrat John W. Davis).


In fact, Democrats held out little hope of taking the White House in 1928, given the dismal results of the two previous elections and the (perceived or real) state of what had been a booming economy.   Matters were not helped with central elements of Smith’s candidacy.  Republicans seized on his New York City political roots, especially in the Tammany Hall machine system that dominated that city for years.


Smith’s stance against Prohibition also rallied Republicans, who were united in keeping the constitutional amendment going.  Perhaps more damaging than either was that Smith was a Roman Catholic.  Many Americans really believed that, if the governor was to capture the White House, he would have been at the beck-and-call of the Pope in Rome.


As it was, Republicans were probably just as confident that voters would look to what seemed to be an unstoppable national economy and make their decision primarily on the perception of prosperity and its continuing into the new decade.


The results were well in line with the tide of G.O.P. dominance during the 1920s.  Hoover swept to a resounding victory, capturing 58% of the popular vote, carrying 6.5 million more voters than Smith.  The electoral count was even more devastating.  Hoover captured 444 and Smith only garnered a paltry 87.   Ironically for a New York governor, his best results were in the Deep South, in such states as South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana and he didn’t even carry his home state.


Hoover’s total and complete victory propelled him into the presidency with what he felt was a strong mandate to continue with business as usual and confidence that American economic fundamentals were solid.  Yet, within a year of his election, the bottom fell out.


The Great Depression was ushered in with the crushing collapse of the stock market in October 1929 and matters continued to worsen in coming years.  Notably, although Walter P. Temple, owner of the Homestead, didn’t play the stock market, his fate mirrored that of many during the depression’s early years.  By late spring 1930, he moved from the ranch, leasing it to a military school in the hopes of raising capital to save the property.


But, as banks failed in huge numbers two years later, his situation worsened.  In July 1932, the Homestead was lost to foreclosure.  Four months later, Hoover, who reacted initially as if the depression was temporary and acted as if no concerted efforts were needed to improve the situation, was drummed out of office and Smith’s successor as governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt stormed to victory.  The Republicans would not win a presidential contest for twenty more years.


A few items in the Homestead’s collection pertaining to the 1928 campaign are highlighted here.  One is an interesting booklet on why independent voters should not vote for Al Smith.  A big reason was Prohibition, another was his religion, but also note the image decrying what might seem familiar today:  Smith’s alleged belief in open borders and unlimited immigration.

Another item touts Smith’s accomplishments as governor of New York and promotes his candidacy, though clearly rhetoric and propaganda like that mostly fell on deaf ears!


There is also a promotional card put out by the Herbert Hoover Loyalty League, a group based in Los Angeles and listing other candidates for the Senate and the House of Representatives that Hoover supporters were encouraged to elect for both the late August primary and the general election.

There is also a general publication intended to inform readers about presidential elections and which gave results for 1924, identified the estimated population of America in 1928, discussed political parties and prohibition, and included other information about the process.


Finally, one of the more interesting politically-themed artifacts in our collection is a needle pack promoting Hoover’s candidacy.  Obviously, marketed for that gender that had, in 1920, been able to vote in national elections for the first time, the pack encouraged women to “stick to the Republican Party.”  Clearly, a majority of them did as Hoover sewed (sorry) up the election in no uncertain terms.

Our 2016 campaign is just about over (and not a moment too soon for many).  There will be nowhere near the decisive defeat of 1928 (or 1924 and 1920, for that matter.)  But, whereas the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression loomed on the horizon of what seemed to be a limitless expansion of American economic power, we’ll see what 2017 and beyond have in store for our country.

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