December 4th, 2019


The 1940 Republican Party Presidential Nomination

By the time the 1940 Presidential election had approached, Franklin Roosevelt had served two full terms in office. Up to that point in time, no president had successfully won a third term. At this point in time the Constitution did not prohibit such a thing, as would later be the case. But most presidents had followed the example set by George Washington and had not sought a third perm, feeling that doing so would be improper and disrespectful to Washington's legacy. The two who had attempted such as thing, Ulysses Grant and Theodore Roosevelt, had not been successful and neither of them had tried to win three times in a row. But 1940 was a different time. Franklin Roosevelt was still revered for leading the nation out of the Great Depression. The world was living in precarious times when it appeared as if another great war was on the horizon. While the nation was divided over the question of whether to get in or get out of the conflict, many looked to Roosevelt's wise leadership and steady hand, and many felt that this was the wrong time for a change of leadership guiding the nation.


As with the nation in general, the Republican Party was deeply divided between the isolationists, who wanted to stay out of the war at all costs, and the interventionists, who felt that the it was morally wrong to let the United Kingdom and her allies bear the burden of preventing Germany from conquering all of Europe.

The three leading candidates for the Republican nomination were all isolationists. They were Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan, and District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey of New York. Taft was the leader of the conservative, isolationist wing of the Republican Part.

Dewey was the District Attorney for Manhattan, who had risen to national fame as the "Gangbuster" prosecutor who had successfully prosecuted numerous organized crime figures, most notably Lucky Luciano. Dewey had won most of the presidential primaries in the spring of 1940. He arrived at the Republican Convention in June with the largest number of delegate votes, although he was still well below the number needed to win.

Vandenberg, the senior Republican in the Senate, was considered a possible compromise candidate if Taft or Dewey faltered. Former President Herbert Hoover was also considered to be a compromise candidate.

Each of these candidates was seen to have a number of weaknesses. Taft's strong isolationism and vocal opposition to any American involvement in the European war led many Republican leaders to believe that he could not win a general election. This became more of a concern after France fell to the Nazis in May of 1940 and Germany threatened Britain. Dewey was only 38 in 1940 and he lacked foreign policy experience. This was more of an impediment to his candidacy as Nazi military aggression became more and more of a frightening challenge. Vandenberg was seen as too boring. His lackadaisical, lethargic campaign never gained any traction and his isolationism also cost him support. Former President Herbert Hoover still bore the stigma of having presided over the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression. Unless the Republicans came up with a better candidate, they appeared to be facing another slaughter at the polls like they had experienced in 1936.

Wendell Willkie was a Wall Street-based industrialist who had never run for public office. He was from Indiana and was a former Democrat who had supported Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election. Willkie had first come to public attention as a prominent critic of Roosevelt's attempt to break up electrical power monopolies. Willkie was the CEO of the Commonwealth & Southern Corporation, which provided electrical power to customers in eleven states. In 1933, President Roosevelt created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which promised cheap electricity for the impoverished people of the Tennessee River Valley. The TVA competed with Willkie's company and this led Willkie to criticize and oppose the TVA's attempt to compete with private industry. Willkie argued that the government had unfair advantages over private corporations, and should not be competing directly against them.

Willkie differed from the other Republican candidates in two significant respects. Firstly, he supported many of Roosevelt's social welfare programs. Secondly, he was an outspoken advocate for providing aid to the Allies, especially Britain. His support of giving all aid to the British "short of declaring war" won him the support of many Republicans who disagreed with their party's isolationists. Willkie's arguments for providing aid to the Allies convinced these Republicans that he would be an attractive presidential candidate. Many of the leading media barons supported Willkie in their newspapers and magazines.

A May 8 Gallup Poll showed Dewey at 67% support among Republicans, followed by Vandenberg and Taft, with Willkie at only 3%. But the German Army's rapid blitz into France in May 1940 changed American public opinion. Taft continued to preach the need to concentrate on domestic issues and said that Roosevelt should not be allowed to use the war to extend socialism at home. Both Dewey and Vandenberg also continued to oppose any aid to Britain that might lead to war with Germany. But as sympathy for the embattled British grew, this aided Willkie's candidacy. By mid-June, just about a week before the Republican Convention opened, a Gallup poll reported that Willkie had moved into second place with 17%, and that Dewey was slipping.

The 1940 Republican National Convention was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from June 24 to June 28, 1940. As the delegates were arriving, Gallup reported that Willkie had surged to 29%, Dewey had slipped five more points to 47%, and Taft, Vandenberg and Hoover trailed at 8%, 8%, and 6% respectively. Many "Willkie Clubs" had sprung up across the country and they lobbied delegates to the convention to support their man. At the convention, keynote speaker Harold Stassen, the Governor of Minnesota, announced his support for Willkie. Willkie's outsider status appealed to delegates. Few of the delegations were selected by primaries, and those delegates who were not bound to any candidate had a keen sense of the fast-changing tide of public opinion.

Dewey led on the first ballot, but steadily lost strength thereafter. Both Taft and Willkie gained in strength on each ballot, and by the fourth ballot it appeared that either Willkie or Taft would be the nominee. When the delegations of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York left Dewey and Vandenberg and switched to Willkie, his nomination was assured, giving him the victory on the sixth ballot.

Willkie's nomination was one of the most dramatic moments in any political convention. Willkie left the decision of who his running mate would be to convention chairman and Massachusetts Congressman Joseph Martin, the House Minority Leader. Martin suggested Senate Minority Leader Charles L. McNary of Oregon, even though McNary had led a "Stop Willkie" campaign late in the balloting. Willkie did not have any hard feelings and picked McNary to be his running mate.

Willkie spoke out against Roosevelt's attempt to break the two-term presidential tradition. He told audiences, "if one man is indispensable, then none of us is free." Willkie also criticized what incompetence and waste in Roosevelt's New Deal welfare programs. He promised that as president he would keep most of Roosevelt's government programs, but would make them more efficient.

One strike against Willkie was his corporate background. Many Americans blamed business leaders for the Great Depression, and Democrats tied Willkie to "big business" in order to cause him to lose support with working-class voters. Willkie fearlessly campaigned in industrial areas where Republicans were still blamed for causing the Great Depression and where Roosevelt was very popular. Willkie often had rotten fruit and vegetables thrown at him and was heckled a lot, but he was never deterred.

Willkie accused Roosevelt of leaving the nation unprepared for war. When the evidence failed to support this charge, Willkie changed tactics and accused Roosevelt of secretly planning to take the nation into World War II. In response, Roosevelt promised that he would "not send American boys into any foreign wars."

Roosevelt's popularity was too much for Willkie to overcome. Roosevelt led in all pre-election opinion polls and on Election Day Roosevelt received 27.3 million votes (54.74%) to Willkie's 22.3 million (44.78%). In the Electoral College, Roosevelt defeated Willkie by a margin of 449 to 82. Willkie ran strong in rural areas in the American Midwest, taking over 57% of the farm vote. Roosevelt carried every American city with a population of more than 400,000 except Cincinnati, Ohio. Of the 106 cities with more than 100,000 population, Roosevelt won 61 percent of the votes cast. In the South as a whole, he won 73 percent of the total vote. In the remainder of the country Willkie had a majority of 53 percent. Despite the security of the victory, after the election FDR would say that Willkie had given him the toughest political fight of his life.