US History: Election Of 1940 – FDR Shoots For Three!

Hello and welcome back to another edition of the presidential election series as will be going over the election of 1940, Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) looks to do the unthinkable and attempts to break one of the longest traditions in the country’s history as election day draws closer… Let’s get into it.

FDR’s Presidency

By the time his second term came to an end, Franklin D. Roosevelt had overseen the biggest use of government power from a domestic standpoint than any other president in history as his New Deal policies left him feeling very popular in the eyes of many Americans.

However, many in Washington were not happy with Roosevelt as his New Deal agenda saw government spending increase, big business being regulated and the economy (although not as bad as it was previously) was still in bad shape despite FDR’s efforts and this led to a number of people turning their backs on him.

The biggest issue that FDR faced during his first and second terms was the Supreme Court as you may recall from the 1936 election article was attempting to block much of Roosevelt’s legislation as they believed it to be unconstitutional which led to the creation of a second New Deal, but of course, this also endured some scrutiny by the mostly conservative Supreme Court.

This constant refusal to pass certain parts of the first and second new deal eventually pushed FDR to the idea of wanting to pack the Supreme Court with justices that would allow him to pass his programs into law and he even appointed eight new justices along the way, but this further divided opinion especially among Southern Democrats who felt that the New Deal was becoming an overreach of the federal government as it gave the president more power to deal with issues that usually would be dealt with under the belief of ‘States Rights’.

Nevertheless, FDR’s eight years in the White House are over meaning it’s now time to pass on the mantle of Commander and Chief to the next person…but that’s not what happened. Remember in the intro I mentioned how Roosevelt was going to do the unthinkable, well now it’s time to talk about that.

Running for a Third Term?

While the United States deals with its problems at home, a major conflict is quickly engulfing the rest of the world and that conflict is another world war, which sees German forces under the control of the Nazis forming alliances to spread their influence around the globe whilst battling other nations like Russia and Great Britain.

Despite this, the U.S. in 1940 remains neutral to the idea of joining the war although America would give aid to allies like Britain but remain uninvolved in any actual fighting as many within the country were against the idea of involvement in foreign conflicts while others believed that the U.S. should get involved in the war.

It’s due to these growing tensions over the issue of entering the war and continuing the new deal policies that make FDR decided on running for a third term in office. Now, it should be noted that Roosevelt didn’t want to go for another term as president as this would break the two-term tradition that was established by George Washington and continued on by his successors.

While other presidents like Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson thought about it or decided to run as a third party in Teddy’s case in 1912, none of them came close to really getting a third term but with the possibility of the U.S. getting involved and believing no other candidate with his experience could properly lead the country through a conflict like this made FDR decide to run for president a third time.

News of Roosevelt’s bid for a third term shocked plenty from his rambunctious niece, Alice who said she would vote for Hitler than give the then-president a third term and even John Nance Garner who was the former Speaker of the House and FDR’s vice president in the previous two elections disagreed with this and decided to challenge the incumbent president in the up and coming convention.

When the time came for the Democratic Convention, the two other ‘major’ candidates running alongside FDR were Garner and Roosevelt’s former Postmaster General and DNC Chairman, James Farley, regardless FDR was able to score the nomination for a third time and chose the Secretary of Agriculture, Henry A. Wallace as his new running mate.

So that’s all of the business regarding FDR’s two terms, the issue of war in the background and Roosevelt going for a third term as president…now it’s time to look at the Republicans.

Choosing the Republican Nominee

Following their embarrassing defeat to FDR in the 1936 election, the Republican Party would soon regain some momentum in the midterm elections as Roosevelt’s court-packing plan, the problematic economy and the divide within his own party led to the GOP getting more than 70 seats in Congress.

When the time came to nominate a candidate to challenge FDR in the 1940 election there were a few names that ran including former president Herbert Hoover who was determined to defeat the man who beat him in 1932, but Hoover wasn’t able to get much traction due to the fact many still blamed him and the GOP for the Great Depression.

There were three candidates that appeared to get the most attention heading into the convention:

  • Thomas E. Dewey: The District Attorney of New York
  • Robert Taft: Senator of Ohio and son of William Howard Taft
  • Arthur Vandenburg: Senator of Michigan 

Because the issue of involvement in what would later be called World War II had become a major factor, the GOP were split between the isolationists aka those that didn’t want to be involved in the war and the interventionists aka those that did support involvement in the war.

Thomas Dewey, who shot to prominence in New York as a crime-busting prosecutor against the mafia got a lot of delegates in the early stages of the convention but as the event went on his support was dwindling due to critics within the convention calling him out for his lack of foreign policy experience.

Taft and Vandernburg were also criticized for their support of isolationism as the war continued to escalate and none of the three men was able to get enough support from delegates to win their party’s nomination as a result a compromise candidate was needed in order to break the deadlock.

Wendell Willkie: The GOP’s Dark Horse

That compromise candidate came in the form of Wendell Willkie, a former lawyer turned businessman who had never held any political office prior to the 1940 convention and was a former Democrat who at first supported Franklin Roosevelt and his new deal policies but disagreed with one of the work programs known as the Tennessee Valley Authority or TVA which among things provided cheap electrical power in mostly rural areas which annoyed Willkie as his company was already providing electrical power to areas in the U.S. and felt that the government shouldn’t be competing with private corporations.

As you can imagine, many Republicans were not interested in the idea of a R.I.N.O. (Republican In Name Only) showing up to the nominating convention and expecting to be the party’s nominee, but that’s exactly what happened as Willkie had a large legion of supporters, especially in the media that believed he was a perfect candidate to run for president thanks to his ability of persuasion and his views on intervening in the war by giving aid to British forces but not actually joining the war itself attracted many Republicans as well.

While the battle for the most delegates in the GOP convention went back-and-forth many key states like Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania would throw their support behind Willkie who went on to become the GOP’s nominee for president.

The Republican Party chose Charles McNary who was the Senate Minority Leader as Wendell Willkie’s running mate, which is a little weird considering that McNary was just one of many Republicans who attempted to block Willkie’s nomination with a “Stop Willkie” campaign, but regardless the businessman turned nominee went along with the decision.

So those are the two major candidates for this election, now it’s time to talk about their campaigns.

The Campaigns

FDR is running on his record as he did in 1936, but his also running on the promise that he wouldn’t get the country into war as many still leaned toward the idea of isolationism. He’s also running on the belief that now is not the time to have a different person in the White House with how things are going overseas while also mentioning that the Republicans and those involved in big business are still to blame for the effects of the Great Depression which is going to hurt Willkie’s chances since he’s a big time businessman. On the opposite side, critics are calling out Roosevelt for his decision to break the two-term tradition and run for a third term with many Southerners in his party being the most vocal with their disdain. 

Unlike all of the previous GOP candidates that competed against FDR, Wendell Willkie went on the attack giving numerous speeches and travelling across the country relentlessly criticizing Roosevelt’s decision to run for a third term and for how inefficient the New Deal was when came to resolving the economic hardship that persisted although Willkie did support many New Deal ideas like minimum wage, insurance for the unemployed, regulating free markets and banking, federal pension to the elderly and collective bargaining. 

Willkie also attacked the president for how the country wasn’t prepared to go to war, only to reverse course when it was discovered that FDR was building up the military in case of emergency Wilkie even challenged Roosevelt in a radio debate in what would’ve been the very first presidential election debate in American History, but FDR refused. 

Many Americans still had faith in the New Deal and this led to Willkie being pelted with rotten fruit and vegetables while on the campaign trail, FDR even plotted to use Willkie’s relationship with his ex-wife to get the advantage over his rival, but nothing about the plot ever materialized…So those are the campaigns that both men are using in this election and now it’s time to look at the results.

The Results

As you see from the electoral map, Franklin D. Roosevelt easily won re-election and in the process became the first and only president in U.S. History to be elected to a third term.

FDR received 449 electoral votes and 54.7% of the popular vote making him the only person to win three consecutive elections with a majority of the vote even though he got less of the popular and electoral votes this time around.

Wendell Willkie did much better than Hoover and Landon when it came to the electoral votes as he got 82 electoral votes from Midwestern states while also winning Maine and Vermont, but he got less than what Hoover got in the popular vote as Willkie received 44.8% of the popular vote.

And that’s the election of 1940, FDR has become a third term president and while Roosevelt campaigned on the promise of not sending American troops to fight in the war… a major event that takes place in the following year will change the country’s opinions on isolationism.

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