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The 1936 Republican National Convention was held in Cleveland, Ohio, between June 9 and 12. Although many candidates sought the Republican nomination, only two, Governor Landon and Senator William Borah from Idaho, were considered to be serious candidates. While favorite sons County Attorney Earl Warren from California, Governor Warren Green of South Dakota, and Stephen A. Day from Ohio won their respective primaries, the seventy-year-old Borah, a well-known progressive and “insurgent,” won the Wisconsin, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Oregon primaries, while also performing quite strongly in Knox’s Illinois and Green’s South Dakota. The party machinery, however, almost uniformly backed Landon, a wealthy businessman and centrist, who won primaries in Massachusetts and New Jersey and dominated in the caucuses and at state party conventions.
With Knox withdrawing to become Landon’s selection for vice-president (after the rejection of New Hampshire Governor Styles Bridges) and Day, Green, and Warren releasing their delegates, the tally at the convention was as follows:
Alf Landon 984
William Borah 19
This election is notable for The Literary Digest poll, which was based on ten million questionnaires mailed to readers and potential readers; 2.27 million were returned. The Literary Digest had correctly predicted the winner of the last 5 elections, and announced in its October 31 issue that Landon would be the winner with 57.1% of the vote (v Roosevelt) and 370 electoral votes.
The cause of this mistake has often been attributed to improper sampling: more Republicans subscribed to the Literary Digest than Democrats, and were thus more likely to vote for Landon than Roosevelt. Indeed, every other poll made at this time predicted Roosevelt would win, although most expected him to garner no more than 360 electoral votes. However, a 1976 article in The American Statistician demonstrates that the actual reason for the error was that the Literary Digest relied on voluntary responses. As the article explains, the 2.27 million “respondents who returned their questionnaires represented only that subset of the population with a relatively intense interest in the subject at hand, and as such constitute in no sense a random sample … it seems clear that the minority of anti-Roosevelt voters felt more strongly about the election than did the pro-Roosevelt majority.” A more detailed study in 1988 showed that both the initial sample and non-response bias were contributing factors, and that the error due to the initial sample taken alone would not have been sufficient to predict the Landon victory.
The magnitude of the error by the Literary Digest (19.6% in the popular vote for Landon v Roosevelt) destroyed the magazine’s credibility, and it folded within 18 months of the election.
That same year, George Gallup, an advertising executive who had begun a scientific poll, predicted that Roosevelt would win the election based on a quota sample of 50,000 people. His correct predictions made public opinion polling a critical element of elections for journalists, and indeed for politicians. The Gallup Poll would become a staple of future presidential elections, and remains one of the most prominent election polling organizations.
Landon proved to be an ineffective campaigner who rarely traveled. Most of the attacks on FDR and Social Security were developed by Republican campaigners rather than Landon himself. In the two months after his nomination he made no campaign appearances. Columnist Westbrook Pegler lampooned, “Considerable mystery surrounds the disappearance of Alfred M. Landon of Topeka, Kansas … The Missing Persons Bureau has sent out an alarm bulletin bearing Mr. Landon’s photograph and other particulars, and anyone having information of his whereabouts is asked to communicate direct with the Republican National Committee.”
Here is a two-hour slice of the Nominating addresses as they were heard live on June 11, 1936