When: June 9-12, 1936
Nominee: Kansas Gov. Alf Landon
History hasn’t been kind to Alf Landon.
When he’s remembered at all, Landon is known as the man foolish enough to challenge Franklin D. Roosevelt in the middle of the Great Depression. The Republican governor suffered a historic defeat in that general election, winning just two states. He even lost his home state of Kansas.
But Landon may be best known for winning a public opinion poll: the one conducted by the Literary Digest, which had correctly picked presidential winners for two decades before 1936. Days before the election, the magazine said Landon would crush Roosevelt at the polls.
He did not. The Digest’s spectacular failure changed the way public opinion is surveyed, but it may have also turned Landon into a semitragic footnote, the guy who won a flawed opinion survey but lost when voters actually cast ballots.
The truth, as always, is more complicated.
In 1936, Landon was a popular governor in a progressive Republican state, a populist enclave best exemplified by Emporia Gazette editor William Allen White. Landon had won re-election in Kansas when Republicans in other states had lost. He had managed the state’s economy well in difficult times.
And Roosevelt was more vulnerable in 1936 than history recalls. Most of the country’s newspapers worried about the New Deal, while business owners savagely attacked the federal government’s heavy involvement in the nation’s economy. A Gallup poll showed Roosevelt’s popularity slumping in the spring of that year.
There was reason to think Landon would have a chance against FDR.
Yet that judgment would not be tested before the June Republican convention in Cleveland. The move to presidential preference primaries was still in its infancy. Most convention delegates were still picked in state caucuses and conventions controlled by party activists.
Landon entered just two presidential primaries that year, winning them both. But he was the clear choice of the party’s elites and came to Cleveland the overwhelming favorite for the nomination.
There were wrinkles. Former president Herbert Hoover — the man in office when the Depression hit and the man most blamed for it — hinted at another candidacy and received a thunderous ovation when he spoke to the 17,000 in the hall. Sen. William Borah, an aging progressive Republican from Idaho, won five state primaries and would make a convention push for the party’s nod.
Both candidacies faded quickly. Landon won on the first ballot, receiving more than 90 percent of the convention’s votes.
In his book “The Glory and the Dream,” historian William Manchester writes of the delegates breaking into song: “Alf Landon’s learned a thing or two, he knows the right solution / And in the White House he will stay within the Constitution.”
Oddly, though, Landon wasn’t in Cleveland for the vote. In fact, he never attended the convention at all, preferring to listen to the proceedings on the radio and communicating by telegram.
He accepted the nomination from the steps of the state Capitol in Topeka.
“We must be freed from excessive expenditures and crippling taxation,” he told the crowd. “We must be freed from the effects of an arbitrary and uncertain monetary policy. … Once these things are done, the energies of the American economic system will remedy the ravages of depression and restore full activity and full employment.”
Interestingly, Landon’s reluctance to attend the convention foreshadowed his hesitance about campaigning at all. He virtually disappeared after the convention, making his case largely through radio speeches, then a new concept in politics.
He bitterly attacked Social Security, calling the measure “unjust and stupidly drafted.” He suggested Roosevelt was a communist.
“He came across to the public as a colorless, bespectacled little man with a flat, raspy voice,” Manchester writes. “He read his speeches badly, and they were bad speeches.”
The Kansas City Journal-Post pulled no punches, blaming Republicans for Landon’s November defeat.
“Governor Landon called the Social Security tax a cruel hoax on the workers,” the paper wrote. “It was not half as cruel as the hoax perpetrated on the governor himself by the Cleveland convention when it nominated him for the presidency.”
But Landon’s loss wasn’t just the result of poor campaign technique.
What is clear in retrospect is that the 1936 Republican convention marked the effective end of the progressive movement in Republican politics, a movement defined by Theodore Roosevelt nearly four decades earlier.
African-American voters, who had cast ballots for Republicans since the end of the Civil War, began their slow movement to Franklin Roosevelt’s Democratic Party. At the same time, business interests and anti-labor activists coalesced around a more conservative GOP, a trend that continues to this day.
Landon remained active in Kansas politics and business for decades, helping his daughter Nancy win a Senate seat. He never ran for public office again.
He died at the age of 100 in 1987, shortly after the president came to see him in Topeka. The president was Ronald Reagan, a Republican, who had won re-election in a landslide in 1984.