Election Recaps: The 1920 Presidential Election by Peter Moon

The 1920 Presidential Election marked the end of an era and the beginning of another. A party was losing power in the Executive branch, a war had recently ended, and a new economic boom was on the horizon. Since the GOP was not the party in Presidential power at the time, party members decided to grab the power for themselves. The Term-Limit Amendment was not in place at that time, so Woodrow Wilson decided to try for a third term. This election might not have been something to make a movie out of, but it was interesting enough to write an article about.
THE RIGHT’S POWER GRAB
In the 1912 election, Woodrow Wilson and the Democratic Party won back control of the White House from Roosevelt and Taft. Eight years later, it seemed Wilson’s hope for a third term was anything but possible. By then, the only things Wilson focused on were the League of Nations-related legislation and the progression of his policies.
So, the Right decided to step up, and churned out 12 eventual names on the ballot. Among these were Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding, Major General Leonard Wood, Illinois Governor Frank Orren Lowden, California Senator Hiram Johnson, Pennsylvania Governor William Cameron Sproul, Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler, Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette, former President Theodore Roosevelt (who died on January 6th, 1919), Calvin Coolidge (appeared on ballot), Jeter Connally Pritchard (also appeared on ballot), Miles Poindexter (appeared on ballot), Howard Sutherland (also on the ballot), and Herbert Hoover. John Pershing, the Republican General who led the failed attempt to capture Pancho Villa in the 1910’s, also ran, but was only mentioned in The Presidency of Warren G. Harding.
Harding was largely uninterested in running initially. He entered only 2 of the total 20 possible state conventions, and did badly in both of them. It was largely accepted that he would not win the nomination by any means. Harding did win in Ohio (his own home state, much like John Kasich in 2016), he only won 39 of the possible 48 delegates. Going into the nomination ballot rounds, it wasn’t looking good for him at all.
DISPELLING THE “SMOKE-FILLED ROOMS DELEGATE SWITCH” MYTH
However, then something happened in the “smoke-filled back rooms” of the convention which changed history for the better in Harding’s case. First off, we need to address a few possible misunderstandings about Harding. For one thing, you may have the idea by now that Harding didn’t want the presidency, or wasn’t trying to win it by any means. But, this is further from the truth if you look into it. In the book, “The Presidency of Warren G. Harding”, the author writes that Harding became convinced that the three front runners in the race-Loudon, Wood, and Johnson- could not win the nomination, and began to push for delegate support. If a man really didn’t look to win the race, why would he try to flip support for his opponents? Harding was by no means ‘part of the political establishment’, and he wasn’t a hardline conservative or liberal, either. While he didn’t try to flip those first-choice delegates, Harding did pursue those willing to switch their vote on a second-choice (or even third-choice) ballot, if it came to that. It was smart to do this, though; Harding’s support among the ‘first choice’ crowd was weak. He came last in the count, with only 39 pledged supporters to Woods’ 124 and Johnson’s 112. Also according to the book, Harding did not have ill will or low morale among his fans in the delegate base. In the months leading up to the nomination, Harding’s friends and supporters garnered good will and support in the delegate community. I would wager a guess that Harding knew a possible second or third vote was inevitable, and was targeting that crowd in particular.
Unlike the election races of 2012 or 2016, the GOP had not chosen a clear winner by the time the first ballot vote came around. The party was still split, it seemed, among Progressives (Roosevelt fans) and conservative fans. In the final tally of the first vote, Wood hard garnered the majority, with a base of 287 and a half (Don’t ask why half went to him; I’m just as confused as you may be). Our man, Harding, only came out with 65 and a half votes. According to my source, Harding’s support came largely from his home state of Ohio. All of the other leaders, except Sproul, had areas of the country on their side. On the fourth ballot later, Harding’s support had shrank, coming to rest at 61 and a half, while Wood had risen to 314 and a half. Harding’s efforts had seemed to fail, and it looked like Wood and Loudon were the only ones with any dog in the convention fight.
The myth of the “Smoke filled room” comes from two parts of the convention fight. First, the chairman and one of his associates, Hayes and Harvey, were visited by members of the party throughout the week, but mostly from the night of June 11th. The second half of this comes from the next morning. According to my source, the voting process resumed the next morning amidst a rumor that the Senate Old Guard had decided upon Harding. The end of the eight ballot really showed that Harding had either picked up support from the rumor, or his opponents’ delegates had grown tired of the voting and were jumping ship for fatigue reasons. Harding now had 133 and one half, while Loudon had pushed ahead of Wood, garnering 307 votes to Wood’s 299. Johnson’s support, it seemed, had significantly dwindled down, since he only got 87 votes.
What ensued was what was quoted as a “Stop Harding Movement”. The movement’s affects were laughably counterproductive, as Harding’s support had more than doubled since the recess. This time, Harding gained a vote of 374 and one half; Wood had dropped to 249, Loudon to 121 ½, and Johnson to 82. What happened next was what I consider a “Classic Moment” in the nomination process. Seeing a clear choice emerging, a ‘bandwagon effect’ caused the support of the other candidates to shrink even further, and bolster Harding to victory. On the 10th and final ballot, Harding received 692 and 2/10th’s, far surpassing the needed ~400 votes.
This convention has been called “strange”, “historic”, and even “a show of the delegate-swapping process”. However, the truth is that this convention was actually a show of the instability and lack of control the bosses had over their convention rules and voting processes. If they had created a “bounded” delegate system, and had added more to that category than to the “unbounded” side, would we have seen this shift from Loudon and Wood to Harding? I think not. This convention can be used as a consequential picture for why we have the rules we do today, and why an unbound delegate can be so monumental in the final outcome.
DEMOCRATIC NOMINATION: WHERE’S WILSON?
On June 28th, the DNC started it’s nomination process. While the Republicans weren’t in power at the time, the Democrats’ candidates reached a number of 17, which is unusual since they had the power in the country at that moment.
Wilson was stubborn. While he was going for a third term (which no one beforehand had ever achieved) and while he was sick, he still decided that he could at least run again. This posed a problem for the Democrats: While Wilson was the president who had gotten us in and out of Europe quickly and successfully, the country was still in turmoil-and he had done little to help change that fact. Wilson himself did not help the nomination process in the slightest. While the nation may have favored him, his party was certainly looking for a fresh face. Wilson worsened the situation, as he did not decide to nominate a successor, which meant the party itself had to choose their own. And oh boy, did they have a field. In total, the Democratic nomination field contained 17 individuals. Among those were Ohio Governor James Cox, Wilson’s relative William Gibbs McAdoo, Attorney General Alexander Palmer, New York Governor Al Smith, Ambassador John W. Davis, New Jersey Governor Edward I. Edwards, Oklahoma Senator Robert Latham Owen, Department of Agriculture Secretary Edwin T. Meredith, Virginia Senator Carter Glass, DNC Chairman Homer S. Cunnings, North Carolina Senator Furnifold M. Simmons, former ambassador James W. Gerard, Nebraska Senator Gilbert Hitchcock, and Francis Burton Harrison. The following were also running, but were ‘not formally nominated: Mississippi Senator John Sharp Williams, Vice President Thomas R. Marshall, and President Woodrow Wilson. I get why Wilson wasn’t nominated, but I still don’t know why the other two were included in that, since only one candidate can be considered as ‘not nominated’, since only one can run on the ticket of the party in the general election.
Like the RNC, the Democratic convention had multiple ballot votes. In the first one on July 2nd, McAdoo was the clear frontrunner with 226 votes, and Cox with only 134. By the 38th ballot, Palmer dropped out. By the 43rd and final ballot, Cox became the nominee due to him not being directly tied with Wilson (through familial ties like McAdoo), and because they were simply exhausted with the process.
An interesting fact that few outside of political or election history know is that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the ultimate 4-term Democrat, was chosen as Cox’s running mate. He would later on run for the position himself in 1932, and go on to serve nearly 16 years, but dying shortly after his 4th win.
HISTORICAL CONTEXT
In the 1920 election, many issues were on the table for Americans to ponder on when they went to the ballot boxes on November 2nd. For one thing, the “War To End All Wars” had ended roughly ~2 years ago. Germany and it’s allies had been crushed into submission by the U.S., Britain, and France. The US had lent our allies in Europe over 10 billion dollars in aide for cleanup and restoration efforts. (Around 124 billion dollars in today’s money). In 1920, there were around 28 million voters in the election, as opposed to past years. The country was in the midst of riots, including the 1919 Chicago race riots which left the city reeling from racial mobs lynching and targeting other racial groups and burning down businesses and residencies. The US had grown from a population of 76 million in the 1900 census to an overwhelming 106 million in the 1920 census (a literal third of what it is today). The northern states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin in total contained nearly half of the entire population (around 40-53 million people) in them. This is very important, as Harding captured nearly all of these states in his election bid.
One thing historians speculate led to the victory of Harding to the presidency in 1920 was the Progressive Era. The first real Progressive came in the form of Theodore Roosevelt, who increased governmental power through a variety of legislative actions and his ‘trust-busting’ activities. William Howard Taft, Roosevelt’s arguably weak successor, continued his former boss’s policies, and did not shrink the power or size of government during his term. The power of this era’s movement was evident with the election in 1912, where two Progressive candidates fought it out for the heart of the country. Both garnered large amounts of the population’s vote, and cost the Republicans the Presidency. Thanks to the Progressive Left and Woodrow Wilson, we have the Federal Reserve, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Clayton Anti-Trust Act. We also got the Sedition laws, the Federal Farm Loan Act, too. This all ended in 1919 with the failure to join the League of Nations, which was dearly loved by Woodrow Wilson. This was all represented in the near tripling of the size of the federal employment size, which grew from 239,000 in 1901 to over 650,000 in 1920. Federal expenditures had risen from 520 million to over 6 billion (from 1900 to 1920).
Wilson’s failure at the end of his presidency can be attributed to why his party lost it’s bid in that election as well. John McMurray, chief of the Far Eastern division in the State Department wrote that “Wilson had been so exclusively responsible for policies with the administration so much as a one man show that his disability has paralyzed the whole executive. One has feeling of a ship at sea with engines stopped.”
One issue with the end of the war and the armacists was the rapid demobilization of the military. The news of the end of the war overjoyed Americans at home, but it also brought with it demands that our troops be brought back home. While I agree that it was a good idea to withdraw troops from Germany and France, this was not an easy task. Just to give a reason why I state this: In the 1918 November time, there were over 2,000,000 Americans in the Overseas American Expeditionary Force. That’s roughly 2 million troops, which means that a lot of trips on boats and planes would have to be made. Also, this massive force had shipped thousands of goods and equipment to Europe to aid the war effort, and now all of it had to be brought back. Imagine if a chemical attack threat were heard in New York, and 2 million people needed to leave the city in a matter of weeks. Yeah, it would be total chaos.
This withdrawal situation was even worse when one considers the utter lack of planning which went into it. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker admitted on November 12, 1918 that “No plans had been finally formulated.” At that very time, Baker and his Chief of Staff General March were disagreeing how exactly withdrawal should be carried out. And, mind you, this was all only 1 day after the end of the war.
On November 16, March gave orders to discharge the first 200,000 men according to their units. He thought this method was a good and fast-paced idea, which would shorten the overall time it took to get all 2 million soldiers out of Europe.
These 2 million men came home in as fast of ways as they possibly could. Once transportation opened up, off went the next group back to their homeland. By the end of November, the first 26,000 had returned (a far cry short of the 200,000 Marsh had planned). But by August (9 months later), only 40,000 of our men were left in Europe.
Wilson also failed to really plan out the re-conversion of the American market back from the wartime economy to the peacetime economy. In a joint session of Congress several weeks after the end of the war, Wilson stated that “Americans did not need to be coached and led to economic and industrial readjustment.” He also said “Americans know their own business, are quick and resourceful at every readjustment, and self reliant in action. Any leading strings we might seek to put them in would speedily become hopelessly tangled, because they would pay no attention to them, and go their own way.” Wilson was not being inept or unknowledgeable about what issues would come; on many occasions, he’d made this stance clear to the public. While Wilson’s trust in the US economy may be considered patriotic at best, it was severely overstated and problematic for the nation itself. Near the time of the 1920 election, a depression set in on the economy. Bacon, which had cost around 26 cents per pound in 1915, rose to over 52 cents per pound in 1920. This is just one example of the critical effects of the Depression, which contradicted Wilson’s belief that ‘Americans would find their own way back’. While this was occurring, however, Wilson’s attention was set on another issue: the doomed League of Nations.
Wilson was crazy about the League, but the country wasn’t. We never joined it, and never accepted the Treaty that crippled Germany. However, Wilson continued to campaign on and for the League, which is possibly why he didn’t win re-nomination in his own party nor re-election for a third term.
THE GENERAL: UNDERWAY AND FINALE
In the general, Harding virtually ignored Cox, and instead focused on a ‘return to normalcy. This is reminiscent of Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogans, “Make America Great Again”. Unfortunately, Cox did not distance himself from running on Wilson’s policies and political platform. One can draw a conclusion that this decision hurt Cox in the end; Wilson was like a poison to the system. Harding also attacked the Leagues, and the Progressives which had made the country worse since they’d first invaded politics. Harding won the election with these positions, and died before he could finish his first term.
Anyone who says that the 1920 election wasn’t a landslide will be lying to your face if you look up the data. In the popular vote count, Harding won 16.14 million votes to Cox’s 9.13 million votes. Those numbers in percentages were 60.32% to 34.15% respectively. In the Electoral Vote category, Harding crushed Cox by a margin of 404 to 127-a clear victory. In state victories, Cox swept state victories in the South, winning all of the states except Tennessee and Oklahoma. If you look at a county-wide breakdown, Harding’s support came everywhere in the country except the South. Cox couldn’t seem to break out of the South, and the same map shows that Cox had slim support throughout the West, and middle areas of the Northeast. This result showed a clear rejection of the Democrats, Wilson’s failure to lead the country, and the rejection to the Progressive’s failed attempt to make the country better.
Like I stated at the beginning of this article, the 1920 election wasn’t the most interesting election in history. However, I think it’s history is interesting, and shows a snapshot in US history that I think we all should look at to form strategies on how to better run the country.

Twitter: @realPeterMoon

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