What issues divided the United States in the 1920 election?

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The 1920 general election featured a greatly divided country on issues ranging from race, healthcare, foreign policy, and reactions to reforms brought on by the Progressive Era. It was also the first election women could vote; however, many issues that affected the race had to do with the long-standing debate and the general mood after a tumultuous World War and the lingering effects of the Flu pandemic that first struck in 1918.

The Presidential Candidates and Issues

Figure 1. An America First Campaign slogan.

William Harding and Calvin Coolidge, in 1920, led the Republican ticket and James Cox and Franklin Roosevelt led the Democrats. For the Republicans, Harding was a surprise choice. It was a negotiated nomination that was done during the 1920 Chicago Republican Convention. Rather than having a primary election, nominations were secured by delegates who often negotiated for their votes. Harding was seen as a compromise candidate.

For the Democrats, James Cox was chosen as other candidates seemed contentious. At the same time, Roosevelt was nominated as the Vice-Presidential pick, as he was a rising star within the party at the time and his relation to his somewhat distant cousin Theodore Roosevelt also helped secure his nomination.[1]

The main issues included the economy, which had severely contracted after the Wartime boom. The country was also recovering from the effects of the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic. The Republicans campaigned on the theme of 'returning to normalcy' as they argued Woodrow Wilson's attempts to get the United States to join the League of Nations, which they saw as chaotic and could potentially drag the US into European affairs, and other issues, including race riots, a declining economy supporting their theme, and reforms causing major problems for the country. The Progressive Era had seen many reforms to limit the effect of industrialization, but business and other interests were eager to push back. In a famous speech by Harding, he stated:
"America's present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration...not surgery but serenity."

In 1920, Wall Street was bombing as political tensions grew between left-leaning and right-leaning Americans. Unemployment was high as the economy faced a decline in production after the War and weakness influenced by the 1918 Pandemic, to some extent. Race riots had affected many cities in the United States, with mostly large white mobs attacking or instigating blacks in urban regions. The Red Scare had also begun as Russia had become the first declared Communist country, and the Palmer Raids, which were violent policing raids against anarchist and left-leaning groups, stoked tensions in cities. It was also a year of disastrous weather, with violent tornadoes striking the South and Midwest, killing nearly 400 people on Palm Sunday.

Healthcare also became an increasingly important issue. The American Association for Labor Legislation supported compulsory health insurance to protect workers, similar to Europe's reforms. However, a coalition of physicians, businesses, insurance companies, and conservative legislators worked to denounce any healthcare reform, calling such reforms "Bolshevism" or "socialized medicine." [2]

The idea of normalcy did resonate with a large part of the electorate. The Democrats were torn in many ways as a party, which weakened their opposition. Wilson had made promises to key constituencies such as Irish-Americans in supporting Ireland's independence from Britain, which he reneged during the Versailles Treaty negotiations. It was likely German-Americans and Irish-Americans' opposition to the League of Nations that heavily contributed to the United States staying out of this international body and limited their support for the Democrats.

Many press observers noted that the country was divided, and the issues were less important than the cultural differences that emerged in the electorate. Accusations of fake news or false rumors were thrown as accusations between the parties. Interestingly, with advertising money now emerging as a major factor in the race, Harding came up with a new slogan he and his donors circulated widely during the election year, which was "America First (Figure 1)." On the Democratic side, the party attempted to use wide-scale racial prejudice to inspire their base. The had called Harding as someone with "Negro blood."[3]

The Results of the Election

Figure 2. Presidential election results of 1920.

As this was the first election that women could vote, the number of votes cast in 1920 was 8 million more and 1916. The Democrats were defeated in a landslide, with mainly Southern states supporting the party, while Northern states and major cities greatly supporting the Republicans.

Overall, Harding had about 60% of the vote, winning 404 to 127 in the Electoral College. The Republicans also gained control of the House, obtaining 303 seats out of 435. Similarly, in the Senate, they had 59 of the 100 seats. With this congressional and presidential control, the Republicans were able to control legislation and government not only for the next four years but maintained most control of the government until 1932 (Figure 2)

The Long-Term Impact

The long-term impact is the United States did begin to emerge from the 1920 recession on a stronger economic footing, ushering in the "Roaring Twenties." Consumer spending increased dramatically, particularly as new technologies in automobiles, telephones, movies, radio, and electrical appliances becoming widespread consumer products. The consumption-led to the 1929 Wall Street Crash, as heavy debt and under-performing assets based on declining spending, led to not only the crash but the beginning of what would become the Great Depression.

While immediately a disaster for the Democrats, the election led to the rise of Franklin Roosevelt, who was seen as a positive figure throughout the 1920 campaign as he traveled the country. He became the governor of New York from 1928-1932 before then running for President in 1932. The Eighteenth Amendment was passed in 1920, leading to Prohibition's era that also sparked increases in gang and organized crime violence during the 1920s. Race tensions increased, but the Great Migration of African Americans increased to major urban centers throughout the United States, reorganizing demographics.

Economic policies and performance helped accelerate this process, as the booming economy helped accelerate migration to urban regions. Healthcare continued to be a major debate point in the 1920s, as economic inequality increased. However, no reform was achieved, and most of the debate was left in academic circles rather than brought to the public.[4]


There are aspects of the 1920 election that look oddly familiar to us. For instance, the slogan 'America First' was also then used as a key Republican slogan. The Democrats were portrayed as the party that created chaos, and the Republicans were successful in portraying themselves as the part of normalcy. Similar tensions on healthcare, lingering effects of a major pandemic, race riots, and economic decline would also be familiar to us. At the same time, fake news accusations were common, including in the new medium of radio. Perhaps the biggest difference was women having the right to vote for the first time, and ultimately the election ushered the beginning of what emerged as the Roaring Twenties.


  1. For more on the 1920 election, see: Pietrusza, D., 2007. 1920: the year of the six presidents, 1st Carroll & Graf ed. ed. Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York.
  2. For more on key issues of the 1920 election, see: Nichols, C.M., Unger, N.C. (Eds.), 2017. A companion to the gilded age and progressive era, Wiley Blackwell companions to American history. John Wiley & Sons Inc, Hoboken, pg. 368.
  3. For more on the major parties in the period, see: Conlin, J.R., 2014. The American past: a survey of American history. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, Boston, MA, pg. 640.
  4. For more on the election's impact, see: Brown, C., 1991. Ballots of tumult: a portrait of volatility in American voting. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, pg. 130.