Anthony Rudel is the author of Hello, Everybody! The Dawn of American Radio , and is the visiting lecturer of communications studies at Manhattanville College.
A few days before the election, Chuck Todd on MSNBC asked: "If Mitt Romney wins, what would he have done that no Republican since 1928 had done?" The answer: win the presidency without a Nixon or a Bush on the ticket. That's right; the last Republican administration without a representative of one of those two legacy Republican families was elected 84 years ago when Herbert Hoover won the White House. There is, however, another important similarity between Hoover and Romney that went unnoticed: Both men were known for their nonpolitical achievements; they were businessmen with strong organizational skills. But what may be even more interesting are the incredible similarities between the elections of 1932 and 2012, and media's role in those campaigns.
The main issue in 1932 was undoubtedly the economy, as unemployment was over 20 percent as Election Day neared. It had been a bitter campaign with the two sides exchanging attacks via radioed speeches from the candidates and their surrogates. Hoover repeatedly told the beleaguered American workers that what "people need is the restoration of their normal jobs," adding that the Democratic Party would "ignore the piling up of our national debt," which would worsen the situation. They called Franklin Roosevelt's economic plans "the same philosophy of government which has poisoned all of Europe."
As a counter, Democrats pointed to the "political nearsightedness of the Republican Party," and its inability to "turn in the right direction" to help Americans escape the problems plaguing the nation. They called Hoover "the tool of the rich," "the dupe of the international bankers," and "the foe of progressive principles."
Doesn't it all sound incredibly familiar?
And while economics and personal attacks were the main thrusts of both campaigns, an all consuming social issue further divided right from left. Prohibition, which pitted drys against wets, provided a clear distinction for those Americans for whom the economy was not the deciding factor.
As Election Day approached, Republicans warned the nation that they were on the watch for voter fraud and had prepared legal challenges to prevent illegal voting. Meanwhile an army of 115,000 workers assembled years earlier by the Roosevelt campaign were prepared to spend Election Day turning out the vote, state by state, precinct by precinct. It was the first iteration of the now oft-talked about ground game in all its glory.
As to polling, the Literary Digest, which had done an extensive analysis of polling statistics—a far less mathematical version of Nate Silver's Five Thirty-Eight blog—predicted that FDR would win in a landslide. Then on November 5, just days before the election, Hearst publications—the somewhat less virulent Fox of its day—affirmed that their polling had shown conclusively that President Hoover would win 270 Electoral votes, which in 1932 was four more than was needed for victory.
While waiting for returns at his home in Palo Alto, Calif., President Hoover held onto the belief that a late surge sensed by political operatives and reported by Republican leaning newspapers would carry him to re-election. But then, early in the evening, newspapers around the country, even the Republican ones, called the election for Roosevelt. Hoover excused himself from the guests who'd gathered to listen to the results on radio, went into his study, and wrote a telegram of congratulations to the Democratic victor.
History does repeat itself, and by studying what has come before, political campaigns can avoid the pitfalls that can seal the outcome. Listening outside the echo chamber that is media is an unbeatable endeavor. Facts and figures do have meaning; there's a reason it's called political science. The Romney campaign, much like the Hoover campaign before it, fell victim to the messages of its own spokespeople. Simply put, they got trapped in the spin cycle of laundering reality.