1930 Midterms Heralded New Deal

Andrew E. Busch

April 1, 2006

This article is the third in a series on midterm elections in America.

When Herbert Hoover took office in March 1929, Republicans seemed to be on top of the world. Hoover had won a smashing victory against the Democrat (and Catholic) Al Smith of New York, even winning some peripheral South states that no Republican had won since Reconstruction. The GOP controlled Congress as it had since 1918, and for all but a few years since 1894. Most of the nation was enjoying the unprecedented prosperity of the 1920s, although farm prices were depressed.

Over the summer, though, the economy began to slow. Then, less than seven months after Hoover’s inauguration, the stock market suffered its steep descent. By 1930, the Great Depression was fully underway.

Democrats, so long out of power, sensed an opportunity to make big gains—and indeed they did. In the 1930 midterm elections, House Democrats added 49 to their number, Senate Democrats eight. Furthermore, Congress did not convene until a year later—in December 1931—and the results of thirteen House vacancy elections tipped control of the House to Democrats. All in all, one of every five House members was a freshman. In the Senate, Republicans kept a one-seat plurality, but Democrats and the one independent could block action, and there were enough progressive Republican Senators to form a working majority with Democrats on many issues.

Further, Democrats made big gains at the state level, especially in states like Ohio and Massachusetts that had long been GOP strongholds. Perhaps most importantly, Franklin Roosevelt won a second term as Governor of New York. His first win, in 1928, had been a squeaker; his 1930 reelection was by a massive 725,000 margin, instantly propelling him to the front ranks of Democratic presidential contenders.

Overall, news reports held that Democratic leaders believed that the 1930 elections “presaged victory for their presidential ticket in the elections of 1932.”

Democrats ultimately used their new power in Congress to undermine Hoover and lay the groundwork for some of the policy departures of the New Deal. Their initial strategy was less confrontational, and aimed at letting Hoover propose policy and take responsibility for national conditions. However, House Democrats rebelled against this leadership strategy in March 1932, voting to restore spending cuts proposed by Hoover and rejecting his proposed national sales tax in favor of higher taxes on wealth.

A key moment came in July 1932, when Congress sent to Hoover a major federal relief bill that went beyond what the President was willing to support. He ended up vetoing the bill, which had been sponsored by Sen. Robert Wagner and House Speaker John Nance Garner. (He later signed a revised version of the bill, but had made such a point of opposing federal relief that he got no credit for it.)

Not only did Hoover stand on the opposite side of these issues from the Democratic Congress, but most Republicans stood by the President. Seventy-five percent of House Republicans supported the national sales tax, while 75 percent of House Democrats opposed it; almost no House Republicans voted for the Democratic relief bill. Thus the 72nd Congress elected in 1930 had the effect of substantially clarifying in the public mind the partisan division over social welfare and wealth distribution. Indeed, academic studies have shown that the “social welfare” dimension of issue voting in Congress—what would ultimately be the very basis of the New Deal—either first emerged or was greatly strengthened in the 72nd Congress.

The presidential campaign of 1932 was clearly influenced by these congressional disputes. Roosevelt’s nomination roughly coincided with Hoover’s relief veto, and FDR’s deal with John Nance Garner guaranteeing Garner a place on the Democratic ticket bore great symbolic importance given Garner’s sponsorship of the relief bill. Late in the campaign, Roosevelt praised Congress, attacked Hoover’s vetoes, and claimed the previous two years had proven Hoover incapable of working with Congress.

Though any Democratic nominee would have been a favorite against Hoover in 1932, the election of 1930 both launched Roosevelt’s nomination and set the policy stage for Roosevelt’s program, neither of which were inevitable.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.