In the fall of 1932, a hard-fought presidential campaign reached its climax during the final days before the Nov. 8 election. Then, as now, Republicans and Democrats battled for control of the White House against the backdrop of a major economic crisis. But then, unlike today, the Republican candidate was the incumbent president who battled furiously to retain his hold on the federal government’s executive branch.
In an era before the 24-hour news cycle and TV attack ads, U.S. voters got their political information mainly by reading the local newspapers.
In the Twin Cities in 1932, that information was filtered through a media lens that was anything but objective. In Minneapolis, the two leading papers advocated openly and shamelessly for the incumbent Republican president, Herbert Hoover, all but denying equal coverage for his Democratic rival, Franklin Roosevelt.
While their readers may have experienced a different reality in their daily lives, the Minneapolis Tribune and the Minneapolis Journal both maintained that the Hoover administration was making substantial progress in combating the Great Depression. A Roosevelt victory, according to the two local papers, would only lead the country backward toward further economic distress.
Banner headlines praised Hoover
In virtually every edition during the last two weeks of the campaign, the two papers ran banner headlines praising the incumbent president. Only once did Roosevelt rate the same treatment, and that happened when he announced his opposition to a bonus payment for World War I veterans, a position he shared with Hoover.
Across the river in Democratic-leaning St. Paul, the Pioneer Press took a somewhat more measured approach to the presidential campaign. There, the editors provided more equal treatment of the two presidential candidates. On the Monday before the election, a headline which read “Hoover Guaranties Needy Aid” was balanced by the same size headline which read “Roosevelt Plans Final New York Tour.”
Interestingly enough, the only paid advertisement for either presidential candidate in any of the three Twin Cites papers ran in the Pioneer Press on the Sunday before the election. There, a full-page ad showed a vigorous and determined Hoover wrestling a wolf labeled “Depression” under a headline that read “LET HIM ALONE — He’s winning YOUR battle!”
The ad went on to tell Pioneer Press readers that “180,000 unemployed workers went back to work in August, 360,000 in September and even more have been put back to work in October. THE BATTLE OF JOBS IS BEING WON.” What the ad didn’t say was that 12 million people were still out of work in the fall of 1932.
Only voice on the left: Minneapolis Labor Review
In the early 1930s in the Twin Cities, the only significant journalistic voice on the left came from the militant Minneapolis Labor Review published by the city’s Central Labor Council. But the Labor Review, and its outspoken editor, Robley Cramer, virtually ignored the presidential race and focused almost entirely on the re-election campaign of the incumbent Farmer Labor governor, Floyd B. Olson. During the week before the Nov. 8 election, Cramer did praise Roosevelt, but noted that the Democratic candidate would not be able to end the Depression with one master stroke if he was elected.
“Unemployment and suffering is going to be intense long after Mr. Roosevelt becomes the nation’s chief executive. But it will be worth untold millions to the country to have a president with human kindness in his veins — one who places the happiness of men, women and little babies above the welfare of bankers and bondholders.”
Cramer may have been an avid Roosevelt backer, but the eminent national editorialist, Walter Lippmann, was disdainful of New York governor. In an opinion piece reprinted in the Minneapolis Journal, Lippmann dismissed Roosevelt, calling him “a pleasant man who, without any qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president.”
Few hints of New Deal to come
During the final weeks of the campaign, Roosevelt speeches did get reprinted in the back pages of the local papers. In those speeches, the Democratic candidate lambasted the Hoover administration but gave few hints about the massive New Deal policies that he would later implement as president. During the campaign, Roosevelt advocated for a balanced budget, as did his Republican rival, and called for a more direct federal role in dispensing work relief if local governments and private charities lacked the resources to provide that assistance on their own.
Even as the national polls pointed to a Roosevelt victory, the Tribune and the Journal continued to maintain that Hoover would prevail on Nov. 8. But the Minneapolis papers were wrong. On Election Day, Roosevelt won in a landslide, carrying 42 of the country’s 48 states — including Minnesota, which voted Democratic for the first time in its history.
In an editorial that could very well be reprised after the 2008 election, the Minneapolis Journal declared on Nov. 9, 1932, “we have had a bitter campaign full of partisan crimination and recrimination. This was perhaps inevitable in such intense times. But that is all over. The decision has been made with unprecedented emphasis. Patriotism should now rise above partisanship. The nation should hold up the hands of the new president as he discharges the momentous and critical task that has been entrusted to him.”