The Election of 1940

John W. Jeffries

While the war in Europe played a significant role in the parties’ nominations for the presidential election of 1940, it had a relatively small part, and less than is usually understood, in voting.


The American presidential election of 1940 was both important and fascinating. Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first sitting president to run for a third term; the Republicans nominated a political neophyte, New York utilities executive Wendell L. Willkie; and the election took place as Europe had gone to war and debate raged about American foreign policy.  The war had a significant impact on the politics of 1940, though much more on the party nominations in the summer than on the voting in November.  With domestic issues especially important, Roosevelt’s re-election confirmed that the new Democratic majority forged in the Depression Decade of the 1930s had, despite the much different context of 1940, become clearly the nation’s majority party.

In early 1940, the leading Republican possibilities were New York’s young (he turned 38 in 1940) and keenly ambitious district attorney Thomas E. Dewey, Michigan’s coy and cautious   senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, and Ohio’s arch-conservative senator, Robert A. Taft.  But especially after the Nazi Blitzkrieg swept through western Europe in the spring of 1940, Dewey seemed too young and inexperienced, Vandenberg and Taft too isolationist.  Attention increasingly turned to Willkie, who had been a Democrat before registering as a Republican in late 1939 and who did not even appear in the Gallup Poll until April 1940—when he logged a bare 3 percent.

A transplanted Indianan with an engaging personality, Willkie had come to public attention in the 1930s as an attractive and articulate opponent of New Deal regulation even though he supported much New Deal social legislation.  On foreign policy, he favored anti-Axis measures short of active American involvement. With important support from Henry Luce’s publications, Time, Life, and Fortune, from the New York Herald Tribune, the most important Republican newspaper, and from hundreds of Willkie Clubs, with hundreds of thousands and ultimately millions of people calling for his nomination, Willkie surged in the two months before the Republican convention in late June.

If the eventual Republican nominee was far from clear at the outset of 1940, the same held true for the Democratic nomination.   

The tumultuous GOP convention in Philadelphia took place just days after the collapse of France.  With galleries packed by Willkie supporters, who set up a thunderous din of “We Want Willkie,” Willkie won nomination on the sixth ballot in what some Republicans called “the damnedest convention that ever was.”  His support came especially from the eastern delegations, and the internationalist and more moderate Republican “Eastern Establishment” would continue to play a large role in GOP presidential politics.  To balance the ticket with the eastern, internationalist, recently Democratic, utilities magnate Willkie, Republicans nominated Senator Charles McNary of Oregon, a party leader in Congress, an isolationist, and an advocate of public power.

If the eventual Republican nominee was far from clear at the outset of 1940, the same held true for the Democratic nomination.   The anti-third-term tradition in American politics was powerful, and polls down to late 1939 indicated a reluctance to support FDR for a third term.  Roosevelt badly wanted the Democrats to remain the liberal majority party, but no appropriate successor appeared; and a number of conservative, especially Southern, Democrats increasingly opposed the president and the New Deal.  Roosevelt’s unsuccessful effort to “purge” several conservative senators by denying them renomination in 1938 and sharp Republican gains in the mid-term elections that year made a third term seem increasingly unlikely.

With the declarations of war in Europe in September 1939, public opinion began to favor a third term for the experienced president should the war continue, and FDR’s approval ratings shot up. And despite unhappiness with the New Dealers and the prospect of a third term, conservative party regulars recognized Roosevelt’s vote-getting prowess and long “coat-tails,” so important to patronage and to winning state and local races.  But FDR teased the press, the public, and even confidantes with respect to his intentions, earning the sobriquet of the “Sphinx.”  Nonetheless, it seems likely that Roosevelt was inclined as early as 1939 to run again to protect the New Deal and the liberal direction of the party.  As the war turned badly against the Allies in the spring of 1940, he also wanted his anti-Axis foreign policy sustained, a situation that reinforced his readiness to seek re-election. Public opinion, moreover, now supported a third term.  But FDR coveted a draft, or at least the semblance of one, to justify seeking the unprecedented third term.  His allies in the administration and the party—sometimes called “third termites”—worked toward that end.

As the delegates assembled in Chicago in mid-July, they had no clear sign from the president. The keynote speaker, Senate majority leader Alben Barkley, said on FDR’s instructions that the president had no desire to serve another term and that delegates pledged to him were released.  At first there was a stunned silence, and then a voice came booming through the loudspeaker system: “We Want Roosevelt!”  As the cry was repeated time and again, the convention erupted into a pro-Roosevelt demonstration that one reporter aptly called “premeditated pandemonium.”  Later it was discovered that the voice blaring over the loudspeakers came from the basement and belonged to a party operative, Chicago’s superintendent of the sewers—and the chants became known as “the voice from the sewer.”

The next day, the convention overwhelmingly nominated FDR, ultimately by acclamation.  But the drama was far from done.  Roosevelt wanted Henry A. Wallace, his liberal Secretary of Agriculture and a former Republican, as vice president.  Many conservatives and party professionals, however, did not want or trust Wallace, did not want to be bossed by FDR and the New Dealers, and seemed ready to revolt.  Roosevelt threatened—possibly sincerely—not to run were Wallace rejected, because he wanted the Democrats to be the party of liberalism and anti-Axis internationalism.  Eleanor Roosevelt gave a graceful talk that helped settle the delegates, and eventually Wallace was nominated, though only with some three-fifths of the vote.  FDR thought, too optimistically, that the Wallace fight constituted the “final stand” of the party’s “old-line conservatives.”

Listening on the radio, Willkie exploded: “That hypocritical son of a bitch!  This is going to beat me.” 

Willkie thus got his hopes to take on the “champ,” as he called FDR, but the challenger’s campaign reflected his proud claim that he was an “amateur.”  He had little discipline, lost his voice initially, and made extravagant promises and increasingly wild claims and charges.  Republican professionals, unhappy about his campaign, urged him to hammer on two issues:  the threat of dictatorship because of the third-term effort on top of New Deal big government, and the threat of war because of FDR’s anti-Axis policy.  In fact, Willkie had given at least tacit approval to FDR’s foreign and defense policy, including conscription and aid to Great Britain.  But as the campaign wore on, his message came down to charges of dictatorship and war.

FDR meanwhile bided his time, waging what one historian has called his “noncampaign campaign.”  Claiming he was too busy being president to campaign, the president made “non-political” tours of busy military installations and defense plants, deftly undercutting Republican charges that he had left the nation militarily unprepared and economically stagnant.  Then, in the last two weeks, FDR made five major addresses to enthusiastic audiences, with his motorcade attracting clamorous crowds.  He had said at the convention that he would not “engage in purely political debate,” but would call attention to “deliberate or unwitting falsifications of fact.”  He not only countered Republican charges he termed deliberately false but recounted programs and progress under the New Deal and pledged he would continue fighting for peace, prosperity, and the “common man.”

The most noted of Roosevelt’s five addresses came in Boston—in heavily Irish and Anglophobic Boston—on October 30.  Democratic politicians worried about the impact of Republican charges that Roosevelt meant war, and wanted him to provide reassurance.  FDR declared that “I shall say it again and again and again:  Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”  Always before, he had added “except in case of attack,” but not this time—on the grounds, he rationalized, that if attacked it would not be a foreign war.  Listening on the radio, Willkie exploded: “That hypocritical son of a bitch!  This is going to beat me.”  But Willkie, who had bent or gone back on his word on several matters, had little room for accusing Roosevelt of hypocrisy.  Having first supported the President’s foreign policy, he then accused him of taking the nation to war and in fact made essentially the same promise about no war himself.  As one historian aptly put it, Willkie had undergone a “near-total conversion from principled internationalist to opportunistic isolationist” during the campaign.

Nor was such expediency on both sides the low point of the campaign. Willkie had eggs, fruit, and other missiles hurled at him and his motorcades, particularly in working-class areas.  A special Senate committee after the election said that much campaign literature was especially “virulent, dishonest, and defamatory.”  Most of worst literature came from committees, especially the more numerous Republican ones, organized to get around new campaign finance law aimed at limiting expenditures of the two National Committees.  Willkie and his family were accused of being racists (in fact, Willkie had been a fierce opponent of the Klan in the 1920s); and because of their German background of being—despite Willkie’s strong anti-Nazi views—sympathetic to Germany, which throughout 1940 subsidized isolationist efforts and worked to avert FDR’s re-election. Democrats called Willkie a tool of Wall Street, Republicans the enemies of ordinary people.  FDR was accused of being a communist and a secret Jew, too accommodating to African Americans, anti-religion, an aspirant dictator, and a traitor.

In all, the contours of the vote were much like those of 1936, an indication that foreign policy had not been a determinative factor in the election.

When the often ugly campaign ended and voters went to the polls, Roosevelt won reelection with 54.7 percent of the popular vote.  That was down from his 60.8 percent of 1936; and though he carried 38 of the 48 states and a top-heavy 449-82 margin in the Electoral College, those numbers fell below the 46-state Electoral College 523-8 rout of 1936.  As had been the case in the electoral realignment of the 1930s, when the Great Depression and the New Deal had made Democrats the majority party, the Roosevelt Coalition and Democratic majority were based especially in the big cities, among working-class, unionized, lower-middle-class, and ethnic voters, among Catholics and Jews, and from the still overwhelmingly Democratic Solid South. African Americans, though largely disfranchised in the South, continued their departure from the party of Lincoln to the party of Roosevelt.  Outside the Solid South (78 percent Democratic) and the 106 cities with populations over 100,00 (61 percent Democratic), Willkie won the small cities, towns, and rural areas with 53 percent, and he carried some three-fifths of the white Protestant vote outside the South (accounting for about two-thirds of his non-Southern support).  FDR won some 69 percent of the lower-income vote, 53 percent of middle-income, and 28 percent of upper income. Neither gender or age made a systematic difference.

In all, the contours of the vote were much like those of 1936, an indication that foreign policy had not been a determinative factor in the election. One study found that three-fourths of the discussion in the media involved domestic issues, and polls revealed that domestic matters counted most to the voters. Of the roughly one in six people who voted in both 1936 and 1940 and switched parties, the shifts were overwhelmingly from Democrat to Republican with domestic-policy reasons dominating, including some concern about a third-term.  Close to half of FDR’s 1936 wealthy supporters voting again in 1940 switched to Willkie, and the difference between lower- and upper-income voters was actually greater than in 1936.

To be sure, the world situation did affect voting.  Yet not only did it matter less in voting than domestic concerns, but contrary to the usual view that Roosevelt won because of the war and otherwise would have lost, the war and foreign policy on balance evidently cost him votes. The president did win overwhelmingly among Jewish- and Polish-Americans who supported his foreign policy, though at about the same levels as in 1936, and he picked up votes from other pro-Allied internationalists as well and from those who wanted an experienced hand at the helm.  The economic mobilization for war and surging employment no doubt helped FDR, too; in this sense the war made a difference, though not because of foreign policy positions. But the president lost substantial ground among Italian Americans and German Americans because of their fear of war against their homelands, did less well among urban Irish voters, and suffered losses among isolationists generally.

Thus while the war in Europe played a significant role in the parties’ nominations, it had a relatively small part, and less than usually understood, in voting.  The election did inaugurate an era of the growing political importance of national security and foreign policy, and Roosevelt’s victory signaled an active anti-Axis foreign policy (one strongly supported by Willkie after the election); but the war was not the decisive or dominant factor in 1940. Turning especially on domestic issues and attitudes toward FDR and the New Deal, shaped by and largely consistent with the politics of the 1930s, the 1940 election demonstrated the ongoing strength of the Roosevelt Coalition and of the Democratic majority, despite the much different context of 1940.


John W. Jeffries is Professor Emeritus of History and Dean Emeritus of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County

The Election of 1940…

by John W. Jeffries time to read: 11 min