“This Is No Sham Battle”: Coverage of the Presidential Election in TIME Magazine, 5 November 1928, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A couple of recent posts here concerned the mock campaign for president in 1928 mounted by LIFE magazine promoting humorist Will Rogers and his “Anti-Bunk [Nonsense] Party.” That publication’s competitor, TIME, did not take a satirical and comic point of view about the election, but its 5 November edition, highlighted in tonight’s post, has plenty of interesting material about the contest, which was decided the following day.

For example, the front cover features a photo of a crowd of folks at a rally for Democratic Party nominee Al Smith, the governor of New York, and titled it “THE PEOPLE / Is it a great beast?.” Asking readers to look up the “National Affairs” section for more, the magazine headed its discussion with the term “Socialism?” Of course, this has been a convenient word used in the 2020 campaign by Republican incumbent Donald Trump and his supporters against Democratic challenger Joseph Biden, so it is interesting to read what TIME had to say over ninety years ao.


The magazine noted that “monster demonstrations for Smith along the Atlantic seaboard were the most interesting topic of the week for Democrats” but queried, “did those great crowds mean votes—or curiosity?” Was it “a great beast” to quote Alexander Hamilton “or was it a thinking creature of articulate enthusiasms?” It was also inquired about Hoover’s use of “socialism” to describe his rival: “Was that a sincere cry against a genuine danger? Or was it a cry of a Hamiltonian sort of person who viewed the People with alarm? Was it by any chance purely a vote-hunting cry? In any case, was it a wise cry, politically?”

In a speech by Hoover, he declared that, while the government wielded extraordinary power during the First World War, these were removed afterward. Yet, the Republican charged that Smith offered proposals which “would be a long step towards the abandonment of our American system and a surrender to the destructive operation of governmental conduct of commercial business.” Specifically concerning three major issues, these being Prohibition, electric power and relief for farmers, Hoover claimed that “our opponents propose that we must thrust government a long way into the businesses which give rise to these problems” and that this meant “they abandon the tenets of their own party and turn to State socialism.

The magazine observed that what Smith proposed with the first is that the states be given the choice to choose to maintain the Prohibition system or allow the making and selling of alcoholic beverages “under State administration, for home consumption.” Concerning hydroelectric power, he advocated “government development, ownership and control of undeveloped sites still in the Government’s hands” as well as operation, if necessary, given concerns of leases to private entities that lacked “adequate rate-controlling and recapture clauses.” Finally, with farm relief, there would “federal assistance in distributing marketing costs over units of any crop in which a price-depressing surplus occurs.”


Not surprisingly, Hoover characterized these “in such a way as to represent his opponent as the apostle of an entire political philosophy foreign to the U.S.” but also, the magazine opined, did so that he “made it sounds like just another political speech, and bad politics at that, because Nominee Smith was left with an obvious retort,” namely that some of the Democrat’s proposals were in line with or in proximity to those advocated by Republicans, such as with the question of aid to farmers and the matter of developing hydroelectric power. Smith, indeed, responded quickly to the socialism charge by naming Republicans who would have to be so described, including Hoover’s running mate Senator Charles Curtis, Vice-President Charles Dawes, and Theodore Roosevelt. Among those cited as disagreeing with Hoover on the water power question was California Senator (and former governor) Hiram Johnson, a “champion of a Federal water and power supply for Los Angeles.”

As for those crowds greeting Smith in his late run through the Northeast, in what was billed as the “Battle of the Atlantic,” TIME noted that “one million people, by the coldest reckoning, and in all probability many more saw or tied to see Nominee Smith in New England last week.” It wasn’t just the numbers of people, but the noise generated by them, with a prime example given of a visit to Boston, during which “the People charged, milled, shoved, yelled.” Mrs. Smith was briefly separated from the candidate and when “an officer found her; she was white with fright.” The auto carrying the couple and their daughter took an hour to go twenty blocks because of the crowds. It was reported that 17,000 people crammed a hall to hear him speak first, followed by another 19,000 folks shortly afterward in another venue. When Smith left the city, he was reported to have said “I never shall forget to the end of my life the reception given me by the people of Massachusetts.”

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The article gave more instances of frenzied reactions to Smith as he moved through Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where, in Providence, it was stated that “seething humanity smothered” Smith, while “confetti and torn telephone books snowed.” Moreover, one sign read “Remember November sixth—beer!” At Hartford, Connecticut, it was reported “pandemonium dinned from incessantly sounded motor horns, blared from brass band, [and] split the welkin with shrieks of ‘Al! Al! We’re for you, Al!” It was stated that Smith was “almost awed with the frenzied multitudes . . . supremely happy, but perhaps amazed.” When he reached New Haven, hundreds of people broke through police lines and stopped trains from leaving the station.

Once home in New York City, where there was “a demonstration such as only [William Jennings] Bryan, Roosevelt and Wilson have evoked in recent years.” This led the magazine to ask “what are ‘the people,’ anyway? Are their cheers like the illimitable lapping laughter of the sea—cruel, meaningless and vain.” Were the yells, cheers and shouts en masse “a mighty fraction of the VOICE OF GOD” or was it more like Hamilton’s famous retort that “your people, sir, is a great beast!” Purportedly, Smith appeared baffled by the acclaim when asked about it and responded, “it gives a fellow a kind of feeling of satisfaction and a feeling of reward when you see so many thousand people stand for hours in a crowd just to wave their hands at you. It looks like there is something in the air.” Another clamor greeted the candidate in Philadelphia, where locals “incessantly cheered his speech and booed with ferocity every reference to Pennsylvania’s traditional Republicanism,” an interesting statement given the vital standing of the Quaker State in this year’s election.

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There was much discussion of Smith’s orations in Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore, including his critiques of Hoover’s tendency to avoid talking much in detail about major campaign issues, while he addressed the plight of workers and insufficient weekly wages. As for Prohibition, the governor was quoted as proclaiming “if my plan is socialistic, then the present bootlegging and hijacking and racketeering that is going on is anarchy!” After being criticized by Charles Evans Hughes, the last Republican to lose a presidential election when defeated by Wilson in 1916, Smith, again referring to Prohibition, gave a fiery speech, stating, “I will assure the distinguished Republican representative that this is no sham battle [a term used by Hughes about Smith’s positions on the question]. This is a real fight; and it is not a fight upon the merits or the demerits of the Eighteenth Amendment or the sustaining legislation; it is a fight against bribery, corruption, lawlessness, intemperance and disregard and disrespect for all law. And the American people do not fight sham battles when these questions are at issue.” He asked Hughes simply: “is he satisfied with the condition that exists today?

As for tariffs to protect farmers and industry, Smith scoffed at Hoover’s idea of a non-partisan Tariff Commission because it would take the power of dealing with the issue from Congress and this needed a constitutional amendment to his way of thinking. Speaking generally about the state of things under Republican control for the past eight years, Smith told the crowd “the Republican Party is seeking to continue its control of this Government under false pretenses. It is seeking to keep that control by misstating and misrepresenting the Democratic attitude, and misstating, by the same token, and mispresenting its own attitude on a great many of the big questions.”


Elsewhere in the National Affairs section are interesting short lists of recent converts to the candidates, including the surprising inclusion to the ranks of Hoover supporters of the widow of legendary labor union leader, Samuel Gompers, who reportedly called the Secretary of Commerce “the right man for such a high office.” The Washington Post, now a more left-leaning paper under the ownership of Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos, but then published by a close friend of President Warren G. Harding, touted the value of Hoover’s views on the tariff and his plan for continued prosperity.” The namesake son of prominent Democratic politician William Jennings Bryan was also a Hooverite, calling him “an unselfish man of great executive ability.”

For the Democrats, new supporters included the New York Daily News, citing Smith’s views on Prohibition, and the Baltimore Afro-American Weekly, which cited “Hoover’s acceptance of support from Klansmen.” A footnote added that the prominent Chicago black newspaper, the Defender, with a circulation of 208.000, by far the largest in the nation, supported Smith, while the Baltimore sheet was second largest at just under 50,000. Nine other African-American newspapers in Pittsburgh, Houston, St. Louis, Philadelphia, New York, Atlanta, Baltimore, and Cleveland, and with reported circulations of just under 200,000 in total were all said to be for Hoover. Also listed were senators George Norris of Nebraska and Robert M. LaFollette, a frequent presidential aspirant from Wisconsin, who cited “Progressiveness” as their reason for throwing their support behind the Democratic standard-bearer.

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In discussing the important of money for the campaigns, the magazine noted that “in thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, money poured into the national political treasuries,” while some estimates for 2020 put the total at around $15 billion. Republicans in 1928 were able to surpass all of $4 million as announced by TIME, while Democrats were short a full third of that amount, as just over $3 million, with a half million of that, a record to date, comprised of bank loans. That total for both parties of $7 million would be, adjusted for inflation, shy of $107 million today. A list of major Republican donors included oil magnate John D. Rockfeller and his namesake son, each contributing $25,000; two relatives of Treasury secretary Andrew Mellon with the same amounts; tire manufacturing giants Harvey S. Firestone and R.H. Goodrich, also contributing $25,000 each; and film titans Cecil B. DeMille, Adolph Zukor, and Joseph M. Schenck, with the first two giving $10,000 and the latter $7,000 to the G.O.P.’s coffers.

There was some attempt at topical humor in the magazine’s coverage, including a map showing the midwestern, southern, and eastern parts of the United States with states and other areas given names like “Corn-Land” for Iowa and Missouri; “Klan-Land” for Indiana; “Anti-Saloon Land” for Indiana and Ohio; “Tammany-Land” for New York City; and “Anti-Catholic Land” for Oklahoma. While not included, the western part of the country was given a couple of arrows for “West of Here” with statements of “open spaces, politicians’ paradises, Boulder Dam, Hiram Johnson, The Hoover Lode and Democratic Nuggets.” Offshore near the Carolinas and Georgia was “Rum Runners” while arrows pointed Rum from Canada across Lake Erie to Ohio. From Canada are “Puzzled Spectators” and Happy Farmers” as well as a remark “Here Operates a Model of the Smith Liquor Plan” while from beyond Texas were “Smuggled Mexicans.” In the Atlantic near Delaware and Maryland is “Immigration and things for the tariff to work upon.”


In its discussion of the map, it was added that the west was left out because “though it contains 11 of the 48 state, it contains but 55 of the 531 electoral votes.” It was observed that “California decided the election of 1916” but the western states were not expected to be as important because “a preponderance of the West’s electoral votes is concededly Republican this year.” Red lines on the map “are the routes taken by Nominee Smith on his three campaign tours,” but it was noted that “Nominee Hoover’s routes are not shown because he did not tour, though he did some speechifying without barnstorming as the Democrat did. As for the labels, it was stated that “state names are omitted from the map on the assumption that persons eligible to vote are familiar enough with their country not to need geographical labels to find their way about.” Could we assume that in 2020? In any case, among these labels, denoting Oklahoma as “Anti-Catholic Land” was “because it was there that Nominee Smith made his chief protest against Intolerance,” though it was quickly added that such attitudes “reaches, as everyone knows, from Maine to California, from Mississippi Baptists to Princeton theologues. Religion is an open, acrid issue in Tennessee [site of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 from which the teaching of evolution was given a legal drubbing] and Alabama.”

There is also a handy “Electoral Score Card” with states listed by region with the number of votes in each and boxes to check for Hoover and Smith. It is interesting to see the number at the time compared to what states have now. For example, New York had by far the largest number at 45, but it now has 29. Second on the list was Pennsylvania at 38, but it has 20 now. Illinois had 29 votes and also has 20 these days, while Ohio was fourth at 24 and in 2020 has 18. Showing just how much the population has moved to the west and south, including the “sun belt,” Texas was then fifth with 20 votes, just two more than Missouri, but now has 38. Florida only had 6 and now possesses 29. As for California, there were 11 states with more electoral votes and three others, including Kentucky, Iowa and Wisconsin, who had the same number of 13. with Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, Minnesota and Virginia just behind with 12. Now, our state has by far the most electoral college votes of 55, just one less than Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee combined.


There is so much interesting election-related material that we will return tomorrow, the 92nd anniversary of the 1928 election, with the second and last part, so please check back in with more from the coverage of TIME on the eve of the election.

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