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Biography

In hindsight, FDR might look like a shoo-in for the 1932 presidential election. The campaign unfolded during the darkest days of the Great Depression, and Roosevelt's opponent, Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover, was the man many Americans (perhaps unfairly) held personally responsible for their misery. Five thousand banks had failed, and by the end of the 1932, one third of the nation's workers were unemployed. In the countryside, farm income had declined from $12 billion in 1929 to just $5 billion. Children went hungry in both the coal-mining counties of West Virginia and the big cities of the northeast, yet farmers in the midwest were destroying mountains of surplus crops that they couldn't sell on the market because prices had collapsed. The economy had ground to a halt, and America was suffering.

The Democrats, who had elected only one president since 1896, knew they had a great chance at victory, and thus competition for the party's nomination was fierce. When FDR emerged victorious, he flew by plane to Chicago to accept the nomination in person, the first candidate ever to do so. In the closing words of his acceptance speech, Roosevelt promised "a new deal to the American people," without specifying exactly what that "new deal" would be.

Over the coming months, FDR and his team ran an incredibly well-organized campaign. He also worked to project a public image of health and vigor, trying to allay the fears that his paralysis had made him physically unfit to serve as president. Nine days after winning his party's nomination, he rented a boat with three of his sons and sailed it up the coast to New England, with a press boat filled with reporters and photographers in tow.20 The press ate it up, and instead of a crippled man in a wheelchair, the public had an image of a cheerful, vigorous, lively candidate.

During the campaign, however, Roosevelt offered few indications of how he would actually govern once elected. While he attacked Hoover over the nation's high deficits and bloated federal bureaucracy, FDR gave few signs that he would preside over one of the largest expansions of the federal government in history. As one economist later observed, "given later developments, the campaign speeches often read like a giant misprint, in which Roosevelt and Hoover speak each other's lines."21 Regardless, FDR won and did so by a landslide, capturing 57% of the popular vote and forty-two of the forty-eight states. His optimism, enthusiasm, and the unappealing alternative of another Hoover administration convinced an embattled nation to put a second Roosevelt into the highest office in the land.

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