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By 1920 Woodrow Wilson had served two terms in the White House, breaking a string of Republican control of the Presidency that dated back to Abraham Lincoln's victory in 1860, other than Grover Cleveland's two non-consecutive terms. It was also a significant year because it would be the first election in US history in which women were allowed to vote in every state. Wilson had suffered a stroke in 1919 and his health prevented him from seeking a third consecutive term, even though many believe that he would have liked to do so. It's unlikely that Wilson would have won a third term in any event, as his popularity had declined in the aftermath of World War One, with Wilson's failed attempts to convince his country to join the League of Nations.

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The Republican Party smelled a return to the White House, but first they needed to nominate a candidate. As the race approached, many believed that Theodore Roosevelt would once more seek a return to the White House. But Roosevelt's death in January of 1919 opened up the race. The front runners for the position were Major General Leonard Wood, who had been Roosevelt's commanding officer in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, and Governor Frank Orren Lowden of Illinois. Other potential candidates included Senators Warren G. Harding of Ohio, Hiram Johnson of California, and Miles Poindexter of Washington, Governor Calvin Coolidge of Massachusetts, well known engineer and philanthropist Herbert Hoover, and Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler. Senator Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin also had his eyes on the prize, but his health was also in decline and his support did really not extend outside of his state.

There were only 16 presidential primary states in 1920,. One of the most crucial for presidential candidates was the swing state of Ohio. Local Senator Warren Harding needed some loyalists at the convention to have any chance of nomination. Leonard Wood's campaign hoped to knock Harding out of the race by taking Ohio. Wood campaigned in the state, spending large sums of money. Harding became overconfident about winning his home state and went on to campaign in Indiana, before the April 27 Ohio primary. Harding carried Ohio by only 15,000 votes over Wood, taking less than half the total vote, and won only 39 of 48 delegates. In Indiana, Harding finished fourth, with less than ten percent of the vote, and failed to win a single delegate. He was dejected by the result and considered giving up, but his wife Florence Harding was reported to have nixed this plan. After recovering from the shock of the poor results, Harding traveled to Boston, where he delivered his most famous campaign speech in which he stated that "America's present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration".

The convention met in Chicago on June 8th to select a candidate. This was a time when parties went to their conventions not knowing who their delegates would choose as the party's presidential candidate, and this convention was no exception. At the start of the convention, the race was wide open. General Leonard Wood, Illinois Governor Frank Lowden, and California Senator Hiram Johnson were considered the three most likely, nominees. Warren Harding had once been considered as a strong candidate, but his star was fading by the time of the convention. In the early ballots no candidate garnered enough support to win the nomination and some were predicting that a dark horse candidate would be chosen by the party. Compromise candidates included Pennsylvania Governor William Cameron Sproul, Pennsylvania Senator Philander C. Knox, Kansas Governor Henry Justin Allen, Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, or 1916 nominee Charles Evan Hughes. Sproul was gaining momentum among the conservative wing of the party, at the expense of Governor Lowden.

One divisive issue within the party was the League of Nations. Johnson, a progressive, was strongly opposed to the league and many believed that he would bolt the party if the platform endorsed the League. In the early balloting, voting was close between Wood and Lowden, but neither could get close to the necessary 50 percent mark. Wood received between 29 to 31% of the ballots, (roughly between 287 and 311 votes), and Lowden was close behind with 211 to 289 votes. Johnson received between 133 and 148 votes, and Sproul was a consistent fourth with less than 100 votes each ballot. No candidate seemed to be losing or gaining much support. The convention adjourned for the night after four ballots produced no clear leader, and many states stuck to their favorite-son candidates as the possibility of a dark horse candidate appeared more and more likely.

When the balloting continued the next day, Wood, Lowden, and Johnson remained in the lead, and party leaders worked to find a candidate acceptable to both the progressive and conservative wings of the party. Conservatives strongly opposed Wood, while Lowden was opposed by the progressives in the party. Harding's advantage was that he was seen as a moderately conservative candidate acceptable to the progressive wing of the party. The convention remained deadlocked for a second day and after the eighth ballot, the convention recessed.

The night of June 11–12, 1920 would become famous in political history as the night of the "smoke-filled room". According to political lore, party leaders agreed brokered a deal to nominate Harding. The talks were held in the suite of Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Will Hays at the Blackstone Hotel. Utah Senator Reed Smoot backed Harding, noting that as the Democrats were choosing Governor James Cox of Ohio at their candidate, the Republicans should counter this with Harding so as to win Ohio. During the recess, Harding's campaign workers lobbied Lowden's supporters and others to support Harding. They argued that since the Democrats had nominated Ohio Governor James M. Cox of Ohio, they did not want to give the Democrats a home state advantage in electorally critical swing state of Ohio.

After the meeting, Colonel George Harvey asked Harding if there was anything in Harding's background that might harm his candidacy, to which the senator, who had had at least one extramarital affair, replied there was not.

Harding jumped into the lead on the ninth ballot, and clinched the nomination on the tenth ballot. Many thought that Johnson could have stopped the Harding movement by throwing his support behind Pennsylvania Senator Philander Knox, who was seen as another acceptable compromise candidate. Johnson disliked Harding's policies and disliked Harding personally, and was friends with Knox. But ego prevailed as Johnson still clung to the hope that the voters might swing back in his direction and he never released his supporters. Harding won the nomination on the 10th ballot.

Although Theodore Roosevelt wasn't around to run in the election, his cousin Franklin was selected as the Democratic Party candidate for Vice President on the ticket with Governor James Cox of Ohio. The general election campaign did not turn out to be a referendum on the League of Nations, as Woodrow Wilson had hoped. Neither major party candidate saw support for the League as a winning issue and both were fuzzy on their position on the League. Cox went to the White House to seek Wilson's blessing and endorsed the League, but later resiled from that position when he saw how unpopular it was among Democrats. The campaign platforms of both candidates were so vague that reporter Brand Whitlock wrote: "The people, indeed, do not know what ideas Harding or Cox represents; neither do Harding or Cox. Great is democracy."

During the campaign, rumors were circulated that Senator Harding had "Negro blood," something that at the time was seen as a disparagement. This never really gained any traction and did not seem to hurt Harding's election campaign. Governor Cox traveled a lot on the campaign trail, while Senator Harding relied upon a "Front Porch Campaign" similar to that of William McKinley in 1896. Thousands of voters came to him, at his home in Marion, Ohio, where Harding spoke from his front porch. Harding's campaign was better funded, spending about $8.1 million, nearly four times the money Cox's campaign spent. Hays used national advertising effectively, getting advice from leading adman Albert Lasker. The theme of Harding's campaign was "America First." Ads proclaimed: "This country will remain American. Its next President will remain in our own country," and "We decided long ago that we objected to foreign government of our people."

On election night, November 2, 1920, commercial radio broadcast coverage of election returns for the first time. Announcers at KDKA-AM in Pittsburgh read telegraph ticker results over the air as they came in. This station could be heard over most of the Eastern United States by the small percentage of the population that had radios. Harding won in a landslide. Ethnic groups supported him. German-American voters who had backed Wilson in 1916 now voted against Wilson because of how Germany was treated at the Versailles treaty. Irish Americans were angry at Wilson's refusal to help Ireland at Versailles. This allowed the Harding to gain votes in the big cities. This was the first election in which women from every state were allowed to vote, following the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in August 1920 and Harding won in this demographic. Tennessee voted for Warren G. Harding marking the first time since the end of Reconstruction any of the 11 states of the former Confederacy had voted for a Republican presidential candidate.


Harding received 16,144,093 votes (60.32%) and 404 electoral votes, compared to 9,139,661 (34.15%) for Cox, who received 127 electoral votes. Socialist Eugene V. Debs finished third with 913,693 votes (3.41%) and no electoral votes. What is remarkable is that he did so while incarcerated in an Atlanta penitentiary, jailed for advocating non-compliance with the draft during World War I. This was the largest number of popular votes ever received by a Socialist Party candidate in the United States. The 1920 election was his fifth and last attempt to become president.


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