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Picking Your Primary Poison

Analysts are noticing the Democrats’ efforts to meddle in Republican primaries. In a Wall Street Journal article from last month, Janet Hook writes “Democrats increasingly are running ads against GOP candidates even before they win their party’s nomination. By attacking GOP candidates while they are still embroiled in a primary election campaign, some Democrats have seen an opportunity to promote the GOP candidate they think is easiest to beat, or to weaken the one they consider strongest.”

Hook points to attempts by Democrats to swing the Republican nomination in North Carolina to candidates other than Thom Tillis, whom many viewed as the most electable Republican. Although Democrats failed to produce a potentially weaker Republican nominee in the Tar Heel State (Tillis won the GOP nomination), they have been more successful in other races.

Perhaps most famously, Democrats devoted resources toward enhancing Rep. Todd Akin’s chances of winning the Republican nomination in the 2012 Republican Senate primary in Missouri. Shortly after winning the nomination, Akin made his infamous comments suggesting that a woman who was “legitimate[ly]” raped could not become impregnated, mostly guaranteeing that Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) would win reelection. In 2010, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) likewise helped to ensure that his opponent in the fall would be state Sen. Sharron Angle (R), rather than the (presumably) more formidable Sue Lowden (R).

In truth, this is not a new technique. We could draw on many examples across time, but I thought that this would be a good time to tell a particular story, which is the earliest example of a politician attempting to interfere in an opposing party’s nomination contest of which I’m aware.

To be clear up front, this story is not the result of my own research. What follows is largely drawn from a 1994 article by William G. Thiemann in Presidential Studies Quarterly. It is told in my own words and has my own interpretations, but the credit for unearthing this goes to Thiemann.

The article is titled “President Hoover’s Efforts on Behalf of FDR’s 1932 Nomination.” In what might be one of the most colossal miscalculations in presidential history, Hoover attempted to swing the 1932 presidential nomination to Franklin Roosevelt, believing him to be the easiest Democrat to defeat.

Hoover and Roosevelt had long been seen as rising political stars. In Hoover’s case, he was seen as a star by both parties. At the time, the parties had geographic and demographic bases, rather than firm ideological bases. Both parties sported what we would today refer to as liberal wings. Hoover had bolted the Republican Party in 1912 to support Teddy Roosevelt’s third-party bid for the presidency, and in 1920, many Democrats believed that a ticket consisting of Herbert Hoover and then-Assistant Naval Secretary Franklin Roosevelt could potentially keep the presidency in Democratic hands. Hoover’s name was actually entered into the 1920 Democratic primary in New Hampshire, where he came in second behind unpledged delegates. Hoover then reaffirmed his Republican leanings (and actually entered his name in the 1920 California primary on the Republican side) while FDR became Democratic nominee James Cox’s running mate (they lost, badly).

By 1932, the relationship between Hoover and Roosevelt became increasingly acrimonious. Hoover believed that Roosevelt was a dilettante who would be exposed as a weak candidate over the course of a lengthy campaign and who would never be elected president.

So Hoover made a number of moves to shore up Roosevelt. Part of what made Roosevelt so palatable to Democrats was that he was a northerner who had spent much of his time in Georgia; indeed, much of his initial support came from southern delegates (Eleanor’s family had southern roots as well). A group of Klansmen came to Washington to demand payment from the Democratic National Committee for services they had provided to Roosevelt (FDR notoriously played the race issue both ways, frequently disparaging Reconstruction before Southern audiences). When the DNC refused to pay, the Klansmen sought to deal with Hoover, who turned them away. While Hoover might have created bad publicity for FDR, and perhaps even split the Democratic convention as it had been split in the 1924 election, Thiemann notes that Hoover reasoned in part “we want [Roosevelt] for a candidate.”

After some breaks against FDR in late primaries, including John Nance Garner’s win in the California primary, Hoover became increasingly active. After learning that General Motors executive John Jakob Raskob, 1928 Democratic nominee Al Smith and financier Bernard Baruch were planning to support businessman and diplomat Owen Young, Hoover leaked the information to the press in a (successful) effort to give anti-Young forces an opportunity to coalesce.

As the Democratic convention drew near, Hoover became increasingly convinced that attorney and former Secretary of War Newton Baker would be the Democratic nominee, especially after New Jersey political boss Frank Hague publicly denounced Roosevelt as the weakest candidate. This seemed confirmed when, by the third ballot, FDR’s support had barely increased, from 666.25 delegates to 682.79. There was an increased sense that the Democratic convention was deadlocked, which would mean that the delegates would begin to search for other candidates who would be broadly acceptable.

Hoover did not want this. So he dispatched film executive Louis B. Mayer to speak with the increasingly isolationist Democratic newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, to warn him that support suggested that a wave was building for the staunchly internationalist Baker and urging him to back Roosevelt. Mayer believed his efforts made the difference, and communicated to the White House that “Hearst would cut loose in the morning.”

Indeed, the next morning Hearst’s newspaper published a scathing editorial denouncing Baker. Hearst then negotiated with Garner and William Gibbs McAdoo to move the Texas and California delegations to Roosevelt. This created a stampede at the convention, and Roosevelt captured the two thirds of delegates then needed to become the party’s standard-bearer. Had this not happened, there really is a good chance that Baker would have been the nominee; Roosevelt’s speechwriter would later recall that “I don’t think there was any doubt about it because there was no other person in sight.”

After receiving the news, Hoover’s press secretary Theodore Joslin recalled that “the President smiled more broadly than he had in months.”

Without access to counterfactual information, we cannot determine whether Franklin Roosevelt was, in fact, easier or more difficult to defeat than the other Democratic contenders. But I do think there are a few broad lessons here.

First, note the candidates that terrified Hoover: Baker and Young. These men most resembled Herbert Hoover: technocrats for whom politics was not an avocation. Part of Hoover’s problem was that, like many successful men and women, he tended to associate success with people who were like him, and had a difficult time seeing what others had to offer. Hoover just could not see how the public could embrace a hopelessly optimistic man who spoke in generalities over an accomplished technocrat such as himself.

But more importantly, Hoover was so obsessed with his own reelection and his contempt for Roosevelt that he failed to see the forest for the trees. Twice (that we know of) he made moves that helped avert a deadlocked Democratic convention. So certain was Hoover that the country would never elect FDR that he made moves that kept the Democratic Party from splintering (which could have helped Hoover win).

In addition, Hoover should have seen that he was likely to lose no matter what, given the state of the economy. Under those circumstances, he probably should have attempted to find the Democrat who was most like him. Had a fellow technocrat with a business background like Baker or Young been the nominee, we might not have seen the radical departures that we saw during the New Deal. To the extent that Hoover’s interventions helped Roosevelt to become the Democratic nominee, they helped to transform that party into an ideological, progressive institution, which advanced many programs that Hoover would later find appalling.

This latter point is important today. We grin and look at Reid for helping choose Sharron Angle as his opponent, and think “clever man.” But was it inevitable Reid would win against Angle? Polls showed a close race all along, and Reid could have saddled the Senate with a member who was unlikely to compromise on much of anything, rather than a more pliable senator like Lowden. This seems particularly important as the Thad Cochran-Chris McDaniel Republican Senate runoff in Mississippi approaches; many Democrats are cheering on McDaniel, but perhaps they should be careful what they wish for.

Perhaps the most important lesson from this is merely one of historical significance. We tend to see history and elections as constituting an unbending, inevitable arc toward what we now label modernity. In truth, there is nothing inevitable about it, and behind every monumental accomplishment lie thousands of contingencies that could have been decided either way. The greatest president of the 20th Century was very nearly not the Democratic nominee. That fact alone counsels a great degree of humility when scouring the historical record in an attempt to make predictions about the future.

Sean Trende is the senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics and a senior columnist for the Crystal Ball. He is the author of The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs and Who Will Take It, and co-author of the Almanac of American Politics 2014. Follow Sean on Twitter @SeanTrende.