From today’s standpoint, the presidential election of 1924 might appear to be an oddity or an outlier. In 1924 the nominees of both parties ran on a conservative domestic agenda of limited government and tax cuts. For this reason author Garland Tucker calls 1924 “The High Tide of American Conservatism.”
The Republican incumbent, Calvin Coolidge, had governed as a staunch limited government conservative. He was in the midst of a relentless campaign to reduce government spending, which decreased from $5.1 billion in 1921 to $2.9 billion in 1924 – a 43 percent reduction in federal spending! In combination with the spending reductions, Coolidge pressed for income tax reductions and elimination of the national debt, which was cut by nearly a third. Coolidge exhorted voters to “Keep Cool with Coolidge” and elect him to his first full term in office. (He assumed office upon the death of President Warren Harding, under whom he had served as Vice President.)
Coolidge’s opponent, John Davis, represented the Democratic Party’s own limited government wing – which was prominent but dying off by the early 20th Century. Sandwiched between the two-term presidency of Woodrow Wilson and the lengthy reign of Franklin Roosevelt, Davis’s nomination as a Democrat was actually a temporary return to the traditional principles of the Democratic Party as it was founded by Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.
Davis saw the Democratic Party as the vessel through which the principles of smaller government should be advocated – the party of Jefferson, he reasoned, should remain true to his ideals. Indeed, during the Franklin Roosevelt presidency Davis challenged many of FDR’s New Deal programs in front of the Supreme Court, and by the end of his career he had argued over 140 cases in front of the Court.
Because both the Republican and the Democratic candidates were limited government conservatives, the Progressive Party once again mounted a third-party challenge and nominated Robert La Follette of Wisconsin. La Follette’s candidacy revived the old theme of trust-busting – a critical issue during the 1912 election, which also featured a prominent Progressive Party candidate in Theodore Roosevelt. But unlike Teddy, La Follette wanted to break up the trusts rather than regulate them through bureaucracy. La Follette would go on to win nearly 17% of the popular vote and carry his home state of Wisconsin along with its 13 Electoral College votes, but he failed to mount a serious threat to Coolidge.
Coolidge won the general election handily, defeating John Davis by a margin of 54% to 29%, and winning the Electoral College by a 382-136 margin. The real legacy of the 1924 election is twofold. First, it helped to advance the conservative policies of Calvin Coolidge, who continued to press forward with spending reductions, tax cuts, and reductions to the national deficit. Coolidge remains to this day a hero to many conservatives because he was the most successful conservative president – who most successfully advanced a conservative agenda – of the last century. Ronald Reagan had a deep appreciation for Coolidge and hung his portrait in the Cabinet Room of the White House – an important gesture.
Second, the 1924 election had a dramatic effect on the Democratic Party. Prior to 1924 the Democratic Party was typically defined in old, historical terms: as the party of secession, states’ rights, and the only party in the South. Progressives in the North, Midwest, and Plains states could not migrate to such a party. The Democrats were deeply divided in 1924. The party needed 103 ballots and 16 days to select Davis, in one of the most famous “brokered conventions” in American history. (At one point, H.L. Mencken famously wrote that “Everything is uncertain in this convention but one thing: John W. Davis will never be nominated.”) As a result of this disastrous convention, many progressive Democrats supported La Follette in the general election. But Davis’s failure to capture the presidency meant that the Democratic Party would not be defined by a limited-government, tax-cutting leader. Gradually, as the Republican Party became less friendly to progressives, the Democratic Party became more open to them, redefining its brand. The party has not nominated anyone for President like John Davis since.
Joseph Postell is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.