Election lessons from Al Smith to Mitt Romney

By Michael R. Whitaker

Those following the ongoing Republican Party primaries may have noticed the name Al Smith appearing with increasing frequency.

But unlike contenders Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, Smith is not seeking the Republican presidential nomination. In fact, Smith went down that road some 84 years ago when he was the Democratic nominee in the 1928 presidential election, which he lost in a landslide to his Republican opponent.

Nevertheless, more than a few history-minded journalists have suggested that the sad fate of Smith might augur something for front-runner Mitt Romney, should the latter clinch the gop nomination to challenge Barack Obama for the presidency this November.

Why the comparison is (apparently) relevant is that Smith, the first Roman Catholic in American history to headline a major party nomination for chief executive, campaigned against a national backdrop of virulent anti-Catholic hysteria — as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (better known as the Mormons), Romney may have to endure much the same, and, we are told, is probably doomed to suffer the same outcome as Smith.

Yet a closer look at the last presidential tilt before the great depression reveals that the reductive formula of “capable candidate stymied by bigoted voters” simply doesn’t fit the facts. Accordingly, that election is not very instructive regarding how Romney might fare as the Republican candidate, because ascribing Smith’s defeat to his religion ignores his opponent’s considerable electoral appeal and assumes, wrongly, that religious bigotry worked in only one direction.

So what considerations came into play when Americans went to the polls in 1928? First, the gop boasted a star candidate in secretary of commerce Herbert Hoover.

Voters could scarcely have asked for a stronger contender than the husky Iowan, who by 1928 had distinguished himself on several fronts. In business, he was a self-made mining tycoon with holdings on six continents. As a humanitarian, he masterminded the American relief effort in Europe during and after the First World War, and on the Mississippi river during the disastrous 1927 flood. And as an administrator, he single-handedly transformed the formerly-moribund Commerce Department into one of the most dynamic and effective offices of the federal government.

Altogether, and contrary to our contemporary understandings of the man, Hoover circa 1928 was an excellent presidential candidate. Thus, voters had plenty of reason to vote against Smith which had nothing to do with fear of a Catholic in the White House.

But if religion was not the principal factor in deciding the 1928 election, did it at least slant the playing field against Smith? Perhaps not. To be sure, anti-Catholic pamphlets warning of absurd and chimerical conspiracies from Rome were in no short supply that year. But what that argument overlooks is that Hoover was also not a mainstream Protestant: he was a lifelong Quaker, and like Smith, was the subject of much scurrilous propaganda because of his faith. An anonymous circular distributed a month before the election, for example, accused the Quakers of profiteering and colluding with the British during the American Revolution and cravenly shirking their military duties during the First World War, and went on to claim that the Quaker testimony of pacifism rendered Hoover unfit to serve as commander-in-chief.

Put simply, Protestant voters committed to electing one of their own would have found themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place, with no particular reason to pick one candidate over the other.

One final observation tells the story: among the 40 states that elected Hoover was New York, Smith’s home state. The New York voters, who had previously elected Smith to three consecutive terms as governor, clearly had no qualms against casting their ballots for a Catholic and putting him in high office; that Smith failed to win over even this group confirms the fact that his defeat was not due to religious bigotry, but rather the quality of the candidates.

Protestant chauvinism had little effect on the outcome of the 1928 election. Smith lost because he could not match his opponent’s impressive credentials, not because of where he went to worship on Sundays. Consequently, it does not tell us much about Romney’s chances against Barack Obama should the two mix matters in November. Nevertheless, if we insist on regarding it as a dress rehearsal for such a showdown, it leaves us with the reassuring thought that the better candidate is likely to come out on top.

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