American Elections and Campaigns – 1900 to 1945: Campaigning Over the Air Waves

Left: Advertisement for the Hearst Newspaper chain, c. 1920. (Public Domain)
Advertisement promoting music concerts broadcasted over the radio, c. 1920. (Public Domain)

The evolution of technology has historically progressed alongside changes in mass media and politics. American elections and campaigns are no exceptions to this trend, as the newspaper reigned supreme in mass media throughout the 19th century. The end of the century saw the rise of major newspaper conglomerates by figures such as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. A new technological innovation of the 20th century would not only become a formidable challenger to the newspaper, but would eventually render it obsolete. While the earliest prototypes of its kind emerged in the late 19th century, the radio reached nationwide use and prominence in the 1920s. The first major telecommunications company to sell radio broadcasting time for commercial use was the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, better known now as AT&T. After the Department of Commerce loosened its regulations on radio advertising, AT&T completed a transcontinental telephone line from the East Coast to the West Coast in 1921. Running through New York, Virginia, and California, the new telephone line allowed Americans across the country to receive the same programming simultaneously within a matter of minutes. Political groups saw the networking potential in radio broadcasting, as the very first election to be broadcasted was that of 1920. On Election Day, the results were tallied and read out live by radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The live reporting allowed listeners to be made aware of Warren G. Harding’s victory immediately, as opposed to newspaper readers who had to wait until the next day for the issues to be printed. Both the Democratic and Republican parties made use of radio broadcasting for the first time in the 1924 presidential election. Their respective national conventions were broadcasted live as they took place, allowing the general public for the first time to directly listen to the official political positions and goals of the major candidates. The Republicans proved to have the most success with the new technology out of the other political parties. Republican forerunner Calvin Coolidge – who would go on to win the 1924 election – broadcasted on different stations across the country, taking into account the multiplied listenership of several combined radio broadcasters. The Progressive Party broke new ground with candidate Robert M. La Follette’s “Labor Day” speech, while the Democrats were plagued with broadcasting problems throughout their 1924 national convention. With these varying degrees of success and failure in mind, the major political parties of the era were making progress in experimenting with America’s newest digital technology.

Technicians at the Pittsburgh-based KDKA radio station broadcasting the results of the 1920 presidential election. (Public Domain)
Crowd assembled at the Republican National Convention just outside the Public Auditorium in Cleveland, Ohio, 1924. (Public Domain)

During the 1920s, AT&T was engaged in a tense competition against the Radio Corporation of America, otherwise known as RCA. In their efforts to spread radio broadcasting from the East Coast to the West Coast, AT&T created the WEAF broadcast chain, while RCA created their own WJZ chain. AT&T ultimately dropped out of broadcasting in 1926, whereupon they sold their assets to RCA. These newly-acquired assets were reorganized by RCA into a new group called the National Broadcasting Company, or NBC. NBC then took the WEAF and WJZ chains and designated them as the “Red” and “Blue” networks, respectively. In 1927, NBC’s first major competitor emerged in the form of the Columbia Broadcasting System, or CBS. Several years later in 1941, the Supreme Court ruled in National Broadcasting Co. v. United States that the FCC’s regulations on radio broadcasting were still constitutional. This prompted NBC to sell off the “Blue” network, where it then became the American Broadcasting Company, or ABC. With the first major broadcasters transitioning into larger-scale news reporting, radio became the preeminent American mass media platform of the 1930s.

“Evening Herald” illustration of AT&T’s transcontinental telephone network, c. 1922. (Public Domain)
Front cover of June 1922 RCA catalog of home market goods. (Public Domain)

The 1932 presidential election not only saw more extensive use of radio broadcasting, but the medium would prove to be a staple component of the winning candidate’s presidency. Herbert Hoover – the incumbent Republican president – was growing increasingly unpopular in the lead-up to his re-election campaign. His inability to adequately address the Great Depression, the unpopularity and violence of the Prohibition era, and the mistreatment and violence against war veterans in the Bonus Army incident, had turned many people in the American public against him. Meanwhile, Democratic Governor of New York Franklin D. Roosevelt was gaining a positive reputation throughout the country. His social programs had helped support the impoverished public in his home state, which made many people feel that he would be the right leader to help get the United States out of the financial troubles of the era. Based on his New York model, Roosevelt’s presidential campaign proclaimed that he would invest in public work programs to help the American people. In addition to his political proposals, Roosevelt’s use of radio broadcasts helped raise the public’s perception of him. Through a combination of his distinct speaking voice and his characterization as an approachable figure, Roosevelt was able to win over the trust of millions of prospective voters, Democrats and Republicans alike. Hoover’s Republican campaign made more of an effort to use the radio in the 1932 election as well, going so far as to spend 20% of their total budget on broadcasting alone. Their efforts were not enough to keep up with the unexpected popularity of Roosevelt, however, as Hoover was noted as lacking the same personability and charisma of his competitor. Complementing Roosevelt’s use of the radio was his nationwide train tour throughout 1932. Harkening back to William Jennings Bryan’s 1896 “whistle-stop” campaign, Roosevelt was aware that public outreach was necessary for any possibility of his work programs being accepted by the citizenry. The Roosevelt campaign’s success in garnering public support proved to be advantageous, as the Democratic challenger unanimously won the 1932 election with 472 electoral votes to Hoover’s 59. Not only did Roosevelt’s victory represent the highest percentage of the American popular vote in favor of the Democratic ticket of the era, it also marked the definitive end of Republican domination of the federal government that had lasted from the Civil War to the Great Depression.

Photograph of Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigning in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the 1932 presidential election season. (Wisconsin Historical Society)

Franklin D. Roosevelt – the thirty-second president of the United States – would be re-elected three more times in 1936, 1940, and 1944. In spite of the larger-scale events of the Great Depression’s end and the onset of World War II, the constant struggle between the Democrats and Republicans for political control remained prominent in the domestic sphere. It was ultimately the Roosevelt administration’s effective use of radio broadcasting and campaigning that helped to maintain their constant position of leadership in the 1930s and 1940s. To keep the public informed of all the major changes in American politics, economics, and society, Roosevelt hosted his famous “fireside chats” from 1933 to 1944. The primary topics focused on the domestic recovery efforts to end the Great Depression, and the political and military actions taken by the United States in World War II. By directly addressing the nation, Roosevelt was able to dispel rumors, clarify his policies, and circumvent the Republican-dominated newspaper scene. The importance of the radio and other emerging digital technologies did not go unnoticed at the time, as Press Secretary Stephen Early remarked his opinion that radio was virtually incapable of misrepresenting nor misquoting anyone, as it was “far-reaching and simultaneous in releasing messages given for transmission to the nation for international consumption.” Tens of millions of listeners tuned in for Roosevelt’s “fireside chats,” as they were heard on radios in homes, offices, businesses, military bases, government buildings, and vehicles. The varied environments in which the broadcasts were heard effectively introduced a new layer of intimate connection between the American people and their government. By the time of Roosevelt’s death and the end of World War II in 1945, the radio had become synonymous with American politics and campaigning. Throughout the same era, a new technology was on the rise, and it too would go through the same life span from experimental beginnings to nationwide political prominence.

Franklin D. Roosevelt delivering “fireside chat” on the status of World War II, 1942. (Library of Congress)
U.S. War Department poster quoting Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chat, given two days after the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941. (Library of Congress)

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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