Smith-Hoover Campaign

A presidential election marked the emergence of northeastern, urban, first-generation Americans in a powerful new Democratic Party.

Summary of Event

During the 1920’s, the United States became an urban nation. The Bureau of the Census reported that for the first time in the nation’s history, most of the population resided in areas defined as urban. Urbanization;U.S. Statistics cannot convey the disruption that took place as the nation shifted on its cultural axis, however. There was nothing quiet or secret about this “revolt from the village.” [kw]Smith-Hoover Campaign (1928)[Smith Hoover Campaign (1928)]
[kw]Hoover Campaign, Smith- (1928)
[kw]Campaign, Smith-Hoover (1928)
Presidential elections, U.S.;1928
Democratic Party (U.S.)
[g]United States;1928: Smith-Hoover Campaign[06970]
[c]Government and politics;1928: Smith-Hoover Campaign[06970]
Smith, Alfred E.
Hoover, Herbert
[p]Hoover, Herbert;presidential candidacy 1928
Mencken, H. L.
Cannon, James
Raskob, John Jakob
Roosevelt, Franklin D.

Indeed, some of the major literary figures of the period took delight in emphasizing how out of touch with the realities of an increasingly urban nation the rural United States was becoming. Critics such as H. L. Mencken, editor of the American Mercury, assailed Puritanism and haughtily proclaimed the superiority of the city dwellers over the “hicks” and the fundamentalists. The New Yorker magazine was founded in 1925 as a weekly periodical for urban sophisticates. On the other side, rural voices cried out against the evil influences of the city. From rural newspapers and from conservative, fundamentalist religious leaders—such as Methodist bishop James Cannon, Jr., of Virginia—came warnings about the decadence of urban life. To many, the city offered a challenge to Anglo-Saxon dominance in U.S. affairs.

In 1928, these tensions permeated the presidential campaign, primarily because the Democratic candidate, Alfred E. Smith, personified the new urban forces. Al Smith had spent his entire life within the shadow of New York City’s skyscrapers. Although he quit school at the age of fifteen, he became a powerful and vigorous leader because of his abilities and hard work. He was elected governor of New York four times, and in 1928 he was nominated by the Democrats to run for the presidency. In the eyes of his followers, Smith was the urban version of Abraham Lincoln; he represented the fulfillment of the American Dream. The son of an immigrant was aspiring to the highest office in the land. With his derby hat, his big cigar, his opposition to Prohibition, and his devotion to Roman Catholicism, Smith jauntily and proudly bore his urban label.

The career of Herbert Hoover, the Republican candidate, also resembled a Horatio Alger story. Hoover was born in a small town in Iowa. Initially projected into national prominence through his work as food administrator during World War I and later as a leader of postwar relief work in Europe, he served during the 1920’s as secretary of commerce under two U.S. presidents, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. When Coolidge uttered his cryptic statement about choosing not to run in 1928, Hoover was the most outstanding figure in the Republican Party, and he easily captured the nomination.

Because the substantive issues that might have distinguished the two candidates on rational grounds became blurred, the campaign soon began to focus on emotional factors. Smith’s anti-Prohibition stand and his religion, both of which gained support for him in urban areas of the Northeast, were bitterly criticized in the West and South. To some, such as Kansas editor William Allen White, Smith’s candidacy presented a threat to the long-established political forces dominant in the United States.

Undue emphasis, however, should not be given to Smith’s political disadvantages. Probably more decisive in the campaign were Hoover’s advantages. The Republican candidate had a distinguished record in public service and was able to project the image of efficiency and industry. Furthermore, he had the overwhelming advantage of Republican prosperity behind him. Although many farmers were suffering financially in 1928, Smith failed to garner the farm vote. The election count gave Hoover twenty-one million popular and 444 electoral votes. Smith won fifteen million popular votes and only 87 electoral votes. The total popular vote in 1928 was much higher than in 1924. Smith made substantial gains in the nation’s large urban centers. This “revolt of the cities” was important in the development of a Democratic majority in 1932.


As the campaign of 1928 unfolded, a number of vexing problems faced a seemingly prosperous nation. American farmers had been suffering from unfavorable profit margins since 1921. The nation’s policy toward Latin America had generated considerable antagonism south of the border. The excessive speculation on Wall Street was gradually becoming a source of increasing concern. Some Democrats held that Smith, who had a progressive record as governor of New York, should attack the farm program of the Republicans and promise more positive federal action in general. The more conservative elements warned that radicalism during a period of prosperity would cause the average voter to turn away from the Democratic Party. Smith decided to adopt a cautious platform. Symbolic of this decision was the appointment of John Jackob Raskob, a General Motors executive, as Democratic campaign manager.

Immediately after the election, many Catholics and Democrats complained that Smith had been the victim of a bigoted whispering campaign. Violent anti-Catholicism was exhibited in the election. In retrospect, however, factors other than religion clearly estranged many voters. Smith was a capable statesman and a spokesman for the northeastern urban areas, but for a majority of the voters he was not an acceptable national symbol. His most significant contribution in 1928 was to arouse the latent political potential of many first-generation Americans in eastern cities. It remained for Franklin D. Roosevelt to combine this element with a disenchanted farm vote—in addition to the discontent engendered by the Depression—to produce a winning Democratic coalition in 1932. Presidential elections, U.S.;1928
Democratic Party (U.S.)

Further Reading

  • Anderson, Kristi. The Creation of a Democratic Majority, 1928-1936. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. Examines how the election of 1928 was a turning point in American political life, one that transformed the Democratic Party into the majority party for almost half a century and had a lasting impact on the nation.
  • Finan, Christopher M. Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior. New York: Hill & Wang, 2001. Although clearly biased in Smith’s favor, Finan’s biography nonetheless provides a careful examination of the politician’s career and Smith’s subsequent absence from the pages of American history books.
  • Maisel, L. Sandy, ed. Political Parties and Elections in the United States. New York: Garland, 1991. An interesting and valuable review of the 1928 campaign and of the nature of Smith’s candidacy. Reveals how the campaign, along with contemporary political trends, helped send the Democrats toward long-lasting victory in American electoral politics.
  • Reichley, A. James. The Life of the Parties: A History of American Political Parties. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. Helpful review of the role of the party machinery as it first comprehended and then articulated the public mood in the 1928 election. Asserts that Al Smith’s candidacy was not an isolated phenomenon but a watershed event in American political history.
  • Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr., ed. 1928-1940. Vol. 7 in History of American Presidential Elections. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. The Democratic Party platform, Smith’s speeches, and the relevant speeches and remarks of other figures of the time help make the specific circumstances of the election alive and relevant for the reader.
  • Slayton, Robert A. Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith. New York: Free Press, 2001. This highly acclaimed biography provides a number of new and important details about Smith’s life and delves into the difficult issue of determining what makes a “true” American.
  • Ward, Geoffrey C. A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. The relationship between two of the greatest Democratic politicians of the twentieth century was often stormy and ultimately tragic. This biography reveals how Smith’s defeat in 1928 was, in many ways, essential for Roosevelt’s victory in 1932 and the emergence of the New Deal as the shaping force in modern U.S. history.

Theodore Roosevelt Becomes U.S. President

Wilson Is Elected U.S. President

Scandals of the Harding Administration

Coolidge Is Elected U.S. President

Great Depression

Franklin D. Roosevelt Is Elected U.S. President