The Elections of 1920 and 1924

Candidates:
1920
Warren Harding (404 Electoral Votes)
James Cox (127 Electoral Votes)

1924
Calvin Coolidge (382 Electoral Votes)
John Davis (136 Electoral Votes)
Robert LaFollette (13 Electoral Votes)

By his own admission (“I am not fit for this office and should never have been here”), Warren Harding was unsuited for the presidency.  He owed his overwhelming (a record 60.3 percent of the popular vote) election in 1920 to the conjunction of two factors.  One was complete deadlock between three strong candidates at the Republican nominating convention, which made the selection of a safe non-entity like Harding an attractive compromise.  The other was public revulsion at the wartime hardships, political turmoil, and ultimately the political repression of the Wilson administration.  (Wilson’s Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, rounded up over six thousand suspected radicals in the notorious raids that began in January 1920).  Ohio Democratic governor James Cox might have been an attractive candidate in another year, but he had no chance on the heels of Wilson’s presidency.  Socialist candidate Eugene Debs won almost a million popular votes from the jail cell where he was serving a sentence for opposing American involvement in World War I.  (Harding pardoned him after taking office.)  Harding’s performance as president was at best mediocre, at worst negligent.  His death in 1923 came just before the exposure of several scandals involving members of his cabinet.  (Several years later more personal scandals, including a mistress and a child born out of wedlock, were revealed.)  Calvin Coolidge was both untainted by the Harding scandals and the fortunate beneficiary of an unprecedented (until the 1990’s, that is) wave of prosperity.  He won a sweeping victory in 1924 against Democrat John W. Davis, perhaps the most obscure man ever nominated by a major party (after 103 convention ballots!), and Progressive Party candidate Robert La Follette.  Perhaps Coolidge’s greatest bit of luck was his decision not to run for reelection in 1928, as stock market speculation built to the heights from which it came crashing down in October 1929.

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