January – June 1936: The Presidential Election – Part I
While Spaniards bled in a bloody civil war and all Europe looked on in morbid fascination...while Chinese troops – Communist and Nationalist – waged a defensive struggle against invading Japanese sweeping through Peking down into the Yellow River valley...and while the Berlin Olympics strove to lull the world into a confidence of peace, the United States engaged in its four-year ritual of the election of its President, as the incumbent Democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, strove to secure a second term and protect the programs he had put into place during his first term, collectively known as the New Deal. These had been enacted to combat the economic and social upheaval of the Great Depression, which had caused massive unemployment and a loss of confidence in institutions and the government. There were positive signs to be pointed to, as more Americans were returning to work, and, despite massive expenditures of capital - a move criticized by some - there were also those who found hope in what the President had accomplished thus far. It promised to be a spirited campaign.
His opponent for the election was Alf Landon, former Republican governor from Kansas and one-time Progressive supporter of Teddy Roosevelt back in 1912. He was a fiscal conservative who also believed that the government should address social issues. He accepted some of the New Deal but also found it hostile to business and full of waste. An oil man from Kansas, Landon had a business background and a respect for the working man, concentrating his attacks particularly on big government, as he was a politician who opposed anything with the adjective ‘big’ – be it big government, big business, or big military. In 1932, he was one of the few Republican governors who had survived reelection and was therefore considered a strong candidate for President. However, one of his many weaknesses was his poor campaigning skills, preferring to ignore the primaries and leaving much of the strategy to his campaign staff.
By June, as Europe and Asia bled – and Americans did not notice – the conventions approached and the campaigns heightened. It was clear that Roosevelt was going to retain his Vice-President, John Nance Garner, on his ticket, particularly for the strong support this would earn him in Texas. Political pundits observing the approaching Republican National Convention in Cleveland anticipated the selection of Frank Knox as Landon’s choice for Vice-President. Rough-Rider in the Spanish American War, publisher of the Chicago Daily News, and key Republican fund raiser since 1934, he had been seriously considered as a Presidential candidate in his own right until withdrawing his name from the race. Nevertheless, he would be an effective source of support for Landon in the coming months.
With Roosevelt leading comfortably and enjoying immense popularity, most observers anticipated a comfortable reelection and there was little reason to expect otherwise.