The 1936 presidential election was an important milestone for the Progressive Party. George Norris, the party’s first successful presidential candidate, had become a national symbol for the Progressives, with him stances promoting economic welfare and assistance for the poor, electoral reform, maintaining Prohibition, and an isolationist foreign policy. With Norris a firm believer in term limits, the President affirmed early on in the nomination campaign that he would not be running for a third term as President in 1936. With Norris out of the running and many of the old guard who had steered the party during its rise too old to be viable candidates, the race for the nomination to succeed George Norris was wide open.
The Progressive primaries were a varied contest that mostly benefited favorite son candidates and provided no clear front-runner going into the convention. Two western states held primaries; Oregon and California and both were taken by favorite son candidates. Senator Charles McNary, who had cosponsored the original McNary-Haugen Farm Relief Bill, won Oregon’s primary. The California primary was contested between two hopefuls; Hiram Johnson, who held a firm grip on his Senate seat and much of the state party, and an aspiring young attorney named Earl Warren. Warren had risen quickly through the judicial ranks, serving as District Attorney for Alameda County from 1925 to 1931 when he became Attorney General of California. Johnson’s control of the California Progressive Party was enough that he won the primary, but Warren came a close second. Warren also demonstrated a significant cross-party appeal when he took over ten percent in both the Democratic and Republican primaries in the state.
The other primaries saw the emergence of several strong contenders going into the election. McNary also won the primaries in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, gaining tacit support from Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot and Wisconsin’s powerful La Follette family. Kansas governor Alf Landon had gained President Norris’s support and won the two Great Plains primaries in Nebraska and South Dakota. Newspaper publisher Frank Knox, a Progressive since the party’s formation, won the New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New Jersey primaries. Ohio Senator Robert Bulkley won his home state as well as West Virginia. Lastly, Chicago politician Harold Ickes, another longtime Progressive, unexpectedly burst onto the national scene when he defeated Frank Knox in the Illinois primary.
The 1936 Progressive National Convention was held at the Chicago Stadium, which had been the site of the Democratic National Convention four years previously. The primaries had established Frank Knox, Alf Landon, and Charles McNary as the major contenders for the presidential nomination, but with a majority of delegates still decided by state conventions, the nomination was still deadlocked. The first ballot had Knox in front at 304 delegates, McNary at 296, and Landon at 285. Bulkley, Ickes, and Johnson all had between 30 and 40 delegates, with the remainder of the 1025 total delegates scattered among various candidates. The next four ballots showed little movement among the top three contenders, as no candidate reached even half of the 684 votes required to reach a two thirds majority and secure the presidential nomination. The first major breakthrough came on the sixth ballot, when Harold Ickes released his delegates and threw his support behind Knox. Knox surged to 351 delegates, with Landon second at 305 and McNary third at 298. Bulkley’s support from the Midwestern states had been faltering, and he threw his weight behind McNary. Johnson remained stubbornly possessive of his delegates and even started to pick up some of the other scattered delegates. The ninth ballot was back at a deadlock, with McNary now leading at 337, Knox falling to second with 332, and Landon back under 300 delegates with 291.
At the prolonged convention, the lingering differences within the Progressive Party came out in the open. Frank Knox represented the more urban and interventionist wing of the party, with much of his support coming from the Northeast, and after Harold Ickes threw his support to Konx, Chicago. Charles McNary, for all the nationwide popular appeal he demonstrated in his primary victories, was largely limited to support from rural states who supported his farm actions and applauded his support for the TVA and other such programs. Alf Landon, while he had President Norris’s support, mainly was popular in the Great Plains but struggled to gain support elsewhere. It appeared that no candidate could surge to gain nationwide support, and nobody emerged as President Norris’s true successor in the party.
With the convention still deadlocked between the three leading candidates, the delegates adjourned until the next day. That night, the McNary, Knox, and Landon camps met with each other to try and work out a deal. Amid the drawn out convention, Landon tired of the run for the nomination and seemed likely to bow out. Both McNary and Knox courted the Landon camp, but Landon was not interested in the Vice Presidency. Ultimately, however, Landon rejected all offers except instructing Kansas’s delegates to support McNary as a mutual advocate for farmers. The other delegates Landon released to whomever they chose, which caused both the McNary and Knox camps to scramble as the morning’s first ballot loomed. A majority of Landon’s delegates centered on the Great Plains states shifted toward McNary. On the tenth ballot McNary had a significant edge, but still no candidate was close to the magic 684 delegate mark. Charles McNary had 516 delegates to Frank Knox’s 437. Hiram Johnson still held his now 62 delegates, refusing to concede or grant support to either McNary or Knox. The remaining 10 delegates were scattered among Montana’s Jeannette Rankin, North Dakota’s William Langer, and a lone vote for Alabama judge Hugo Black. Between the tenth and eleventh ballot, the final push for McNary occurred when Harold Ickes announced that he was switching his support from Knox to McNary. Ickes’s sudden switch was the subject of controversy following the convention. Ickes’s reason was that the Chicago and Midwestern urban delegates did not want to have a heavy Northeastern influence when the region was solidly Republican, but McNary’s selection of Harold Ickes as his running mate cast doubt on the sincerity of Ickes’s movement. Nonetheless, the eleventh ballot saw McNary clinch the nomination with 715 votes of the 1025 delegates, pushing the Senate Majority Leader over the two thirds threshold.
The McNary/Ickes ticket entered the general campaign supporting a broad continuation of President Norris’s policies and of the many programs established in the wake of the Great Depression. The Republicans, on the other hand, nominated Alvin T. Fuller of Massachusetts and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan on a ticket that appealed to businesses. Fuller campaigned on a rollback of the business and banking regulations established by Norris in the wake of the stock market crash, maintaining that to bring the United States back to full levels of prosperity. The 1936 GOP campaign slogan played on their candidate’s name: “Fuller Wallets, Fuller Stomachs, a Fuller Nation”. The Democrats, after a difficult primary battle between New York’s Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ohio’s James Cox, and Texas’s John Nance Garner, put the conservative Southern wing of the party at the top of the ticket with Garner winning the nomination. In a gesture to the northern, urban wing of the party, Garner threw his support behind five term Maryland governor Albert Ritchie for Vice President. During Ritchie’s record service as Maryland’s governor since 1920, he had made great improvements to Baltimore and the Washington, D.C. area and heavily invested in modernizing the state. Ritchie was also seen as a counter to Roosevelt’s political maneuvering. Roosevelt had been nearly constantly active in Democratic national politics and tried to get on a presidential ticket every election since 1920, and this had seemed like Roosevelt’s year, but it was not meant to be.
The general campaign between Charles McNary, John Nance Garner, and Alvin T. Fuller was heavily focused on a valuation of the economic reforms of the Norris administration and what role they played in the nation’s recovery from the Great Depression. Progressives including McNary wanted a full continuation of these policies, and some such as William Langer in North Dakota even wanted to expand on Norris’s policies. Even Fuller, a wealthy businessman and opponent of the regulations and welfare programs begun by the Norris administration, acknowledged that Norris’s reforms may have played a role in the recovery of the country, but only through supporting the ability of companies to continue doing business. The Republicans claimed that these welfare programs were weighing heavily on the nation’s budget and that they should be temporary in a time of recovery. Now that the nation had bounced back from the Depression, Fuller argued, the welfare programs and public works projects were no longer needed. Programs such as the TVA should be privatized and the surplus generated from that should be used to help balance the budget and reduce the United States’ debt. Garner’s campaign centered around moderation and what Democrats claimed was a balance between the two extremes of the Progressive and Republican platforms. Some of the existing programs should be kept, including federal works projects such as the TVA that were generating a profit for the government. However, Garner’s platform stated that many of the federal programs should be devolved and turned over to the states to better manage them and reduce the burden on the federal government.
Throughout the campaign, it became clear that many Americans supported the reforms passed by President Norris. The Republican calls that the Progressives were no better than Socialists may have boosted the Republican vote in some of the Mountain states, but it was largely ineffective in the more urban east of the country. For many Americans, the Democratic position of centrism and balance appealed to the American people the most. The Progressive Party had surged in a time of crisis, but the divisions shown at the convention hindered the McNary campaign. The people demonstrated they wanted a moderation of current policy now that the recovery was in full swing. Garner’s campaign was helped by one proposed change, however; the end of Prohibition. President Norris had maintained and defended the policy as a moral imperative, but by 1936 it was clear that the prohibition of alcohol was simply unable to be adequately enforced and was a major source of funds for organized crime syndicates in the big cities. Garner and Ritchie, both “wets”, stressed their opposition to Prohibition and promised to support ending it if they were elected.
All these factors combined to create a large national swing toward the Democrats in the 1936 election and returned the Democratic Party to the White House after a nearly sixteen year absence. John Nance Garner won just over 43% of the popular vote, but gained a slim majority in the electoral college with 273 electoral votes. While McNary came second in the popular vote with 36% well ahead of Fuller’s 20%, the Republicans eked ahead of the Progressives in the electoral college. Because of the electoral reform laws passed in the western states, the Progressives lost out on 18 electoral college votes they would have earned had California, Washington, and Nebraska been winner take all states. Thanks to Fuller’s solid support in the Northeast, the Republicans gained 147 electoral votes while the Progressives received 117. The Socialist ticket of Norman Thomas and Louis Budenz only received 1.2% of the popular vote nationwide, but their 6.11% of the vote in California gained the Socialists their first ever vote in the electoral college.
Senate Majority Leader Charles McNary (OR)/Harold Ickes (IL), Progressive Party: 114 electoral votes
Senator John Nance Garner (TX)/Governor Albert Ritchie (MD), Democratic Party: 273 electoral votes
Former Governor Alvin T. Fuller (MA)/Senator Arthur Vandenberg (MI), Republican Party: 147 electoral votes
Norman Thomas (NY)/Louis Budenz (IN), Socialist Party, 1 electoral vote
*Washington, California, and Nebraska split their electoral votes proportionally.