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This Day in History: FDR, Reagan, and the Electoral College

On this day in 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt accepts the Democratic Party’s renomination for the presidency. He would go on to win the White House by the largest margin in our history (523 to 8 electors). Ronald Reagan came closest to beating this achievement in 1984 (525 to 13 electors).

From a policy perspective, these men were political opposites. But from an electoral perspective, they were very similar. They won by landslides because they understood, perhaps better than anyone else, the objectives encouraged by the Electoral College.

Both political parties have a lot to learn from this history. We do not have to be stuck in the red-blue divide that seems to grip our nation these days.

FDR became President during the Great Depression and soon proposed his “New Deal,” a series of governmental programs intended to cure the economy. Economists can (and do!) argue about whether the New Deal actually worked, but for election purposes, the effectiveness of the New Deal was almost irrelevant. Instead, what mattered is that voters all across the country truly believed in FDR.

Roosevelt took his ideas to the people in “fireside chats.” He was optimistic and hopeful, even in the face of an economy that refused to recover. People thought that he was on their side, fighting for them against big business. FDR then added to this dynamic by putting together his “New Deal Coalition,” an alliance of voters from different regional, racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds. Labor unions, minorities, liberals, southern Protestants, and Catholics all forged a partnership of sorts under this coalition.

By the time the election rolled around, FDR’s base of support included many different types of Americans from all over the country. The Electoral College incentivizes this type of coalition-building. It is unsurprising that FDR won by such a landslide.

Reagan’s relationship with the American people was very similar. He also came to office when people were hurting economically. His solution relied heavily upon tax cuts and tax reform. He had his own version of fireside chats: television addresses from the Oval Office and weekly radio addresses. He was hopeful and optimistic, and he made it clear that he trusted the American people. His campaign slogan in 1984 was hopeful, too: “It’s morning again in America!” Reagan biographer Lou Cannon has remarked: “When Reagan talked this way, in cadences that echoed the optimism of his old hero Franklin Roosevelt, he transcended partisan barriers.”

Reagan’s victory in 1984 was characterized by diversity, just as FDR’s was. He won the election with a majority of every region, every age group, and every occupation. A majority of both men and women voted for Reagan. He won a majority of the blue-collar vote—the first Republican to do so since Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern.

Vincent Rakowitz, a retired brewery worker in San Antonio, perhaps best summarized the appeal of Reagan to many voters in 1984: “He really isn’t like a Republican. He’s more like an American, which is what we really need.”

Indeed, such a statement could have been made of either man, couldn’t it? When you think of FDR, you don’t think: “That New Yorker who got elected President.” Nor do you think of Reagan primarily as a Californian. They were Americans, first and foremost.

On a personal note, I love these stories because they illustrate that the Electoral College is not partisan. The institution does not show a bias toward any particular public policy choice. Instead, its focus is to achieve one very important goal: It motivates candidates to achieve national, cross-regional coalitions and rewards those who do the best job of it.

How are we going to get from this broken place in which we find ourselves and back to coalition building again? The first party to figure it out will start winning in landslides, as Reagan and FDR did.

Further Reading:

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