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Great Depression: 1929–1938

U.S. Presidential Election of 1932

Changes in the Democratic Party

By 1932 the Democratic Party was adding recent immigrants as well as African Americans to its membership rolls, thereby widening the party's scope beyond Southern Democrats.

As the country experienced widespread economic change, so did the Democratic Party. Increasingly, the party attracted black and immigrant voters. It also established the so-called New Deal coalition, which facilitated Democratic Party dominance throughout the Depression and the years that followed.

Prior to the Great Depression, the Democratic Party was most closely associated with segregation, while the Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, had courted African American loyalty since Reconstruction. This began to change in the early 1930s. Republican political machines in northern cities like Chicago maintained black party loyalty through patronage jobs—appointments to government positions on the basis of political alliance rather than merit. The national party, however, had a much more difficult time.

The Depression hit African Americans harder than white Americans, largely because black people were paid lower wages than their white counterparts and were often the first to be laid off. Those who worked as sharecroppers were evicted from their land. This, compounded with the facts that Hoover did little to help African Americans at the onset of the Depression and that he appealed to Southern segregationists during the 1932 election, caused many African Americans to reevaluate their party allegiance.

Party realignments became especially prevalent in the 1936 presidential election. In 1932 over half the black vote went to Republican Herbert Hoover, while 1936 Republican candidate Alf Landon received less than 30 percent of that vote. The Democratic Party continued to court the black vote, and New Deal programs were perceived as beneficial to black interests, even if the New Deal did less for minorities than it did for white Americans.

The decision of the Democratic Party to appeal to black voters had a profound impact on the party, both positively and negatively. Gaining African American support strengthened the party and helped maintain its control of government at all levels. On the other hand, the drive for civil rights reform by black voters created tensions with the party's Southern segregationist base. These intraparty tensions fostered growing divisions among Democrats.

The Democratic Party also increasingly appealed to immigrant populations. As early as 1928, immigrants in urban areas were attracted to the party. This was largely due to the party's presidential candidate, Al Smith, who opposed prohibition and appeared understanding of urban plight. Many immigrants supported Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election because of his New Deal promises. At the same time, Roosevelt was more willing than past presidents to work with non-Western European, non-Protestant immigrant populations. Inclusion of these immigrants, who were also members of unions, furthered a shift in the Democratic Party. Once a rural party, its political goals became more closely attuned to the interests of the urban working class.

1932 Presidential Election

In 1932 Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover lost the presidential election to Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, largely because of the deepening depression and the Bonus Army scandal.

The election of 1932 was the first election of the Great Depression and one of the most defining events of the decade. In June of that year, incumbent candidate Herbert Hoover secured his party's nomination at the Republican National Convention. The Democratic candidate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, secured his own party's nomination two weeks later. Roosevelt, upon receiving his party's bid, promised "a new deal for the American people."

Opposition to Hoover was fierce during the race. His policies at the onset of the Depression were largely considered ineffective. As the sitting president, he shouldered significant blame for the country's economic plight. His bid for reelection was further weakened by the Bonus Army scandal in the summer of 1932. The Bonus Army was made up of 12,000 to 15,000 World War I veterans and their families, hard hit by the Depression, who descended on the nation's capital to demand bonus money promised to the veterans for their military service. Hoover's response would prove to be politically disastrous.

In 1924, just eight years prior, Congress had voted to award Adjusted Compensation certificates to veterans of the Great War as a gesture of gratitude. However, the bonuses were not to be paid in full until 1945. The veterans, many of whom were unemployed and desperate, demanded bonus payment immediately, in a lump sum, to alleviate the economic woes of the Depression. The gathering throng, which the public nicknamed "the Bonus Army," camped out in makeshift towns near the capital.

Though most of the veterans would eventually grow discouraged and abandon their cause, between 2,000 and 5,000 remained in Washington, DC, and staged protests and riots around the city. Tensions peaked in late July 1932, when Hoover mobilized the U.S. Army to remove the protesters. Troops led by General Douglas MacArthur, then U.S. Army Chief of Staff, drove all veterans gathered on government property out of the capitol with tear gas and bayonets. Then, despite Hoover's orders to stop, MacArthur had the Bonus Army's camp forcibly emptied and burned. The outcome was scores of casualties among the veterans and the deaths of two babies.

This event, compounded with Hoover's perceived inability to right the economy, led to the landslide election of his opponent. Roosevelt amassed 22.8 million popular votes and 472 electoral votes. In contrast, Hoover received 15.7 million popular votes and 59 electoral votes. The Democratic Party also gained a majority in both houses of Congress.

1928 and 1932 Electoral Maps

In a dramatic reversal from 1928, the Democratic candidate in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt, won the majority of electoral votes after taking all but six states.
A second Bonus Army protest was held in May 1933. Again, no bonus money was authorized or legislation passed. Nevertheless, public relief programs initiated by President Roosevelt now offered hope of employment. Then, in 1936, the bonuses were at last paid out. In 1944, while World War II still raged, the Servicemen's Readjustment Act (also known as the G.I. Bill) was passed specifically to help veterans returning from that later conflict.
In the summer of 1932 and again in 1933, Bonus Army marchers gathered in the nation's capital. In 1936 Congress would override President Roosevelt's veto to pass a benefits bill authorizing disbursement of nearly $2 billion to veterans.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-53145