United States presidential election, 1920

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United States presidential election, 1920
United States
1916 ←
November 2, 1920→ 1924

531 electoral votes of the Electoral College
266 electoral votes needed to win
 Warren G Harding-Harris & Ewing.jpgJames M. Cox 1920.jpg
NomineeWarren G. HardingJames M. Cox
Home stateOhioOhio
Running mateCalvin CoolidgeFranklin D. Roosevelt
Electoral vote404127
States carried3711
Popular vote16,144,0939,139,661


Presidential election results map. Red denotes states won by Harding/Coolidge, Blue denotes those won by Cox/Roosevelt. Numbers indicate the number of electoral votes allotted to each state.

President before election

Woodrow Wilson

Elected President

Warren G. Harding

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United States presidential election, 1920
United States
1916 ←
November 2, 1920→ 1924

531 electoral votes of the Electoral College
266 electoral votes needed to win
 Warren G Harding-Harris & Ewing.jpgJames M. Cox 1920.jpg
NomineeWarren G. HardingJames M. Cox
Home stateOhioOhio
Running mateCalvin CoolidgeFranklin D. Roosevelt
Electoral vote404127
States carried3711
Popular vote16,144,0939,139,661


Presidential election results map. Red denotes states won by Harding/Coolidge, Blue denotes those won by Cox/Roosevelt. Numbers indicate the number of electoral votes allotted to each state.

President before election

Woodrow Wilson

Elected President

Warren G. Harding

The United States presidential election of 1920 was the 34th quadrennial presidential election, held on Tuesday, November 2, 1920. The Republicans nominated newspaper publisher and Senator Warren G. Harding, while the Democrats chose newspaper publisher and Governor James M. Cox. Incumbent President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, chose not to run for a third term. Former president Theodore Roosevelt had been the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, but his health collapsed in 1918. He died in January 1919, leaving no obvious heir to his progressive legacy. As a result, both major parties ultimately turned to little-known dark horse candidates from the electoral-vote-rich state of Ohio. To help his campaign, Cox chose future president Franklin D. Roosevelt (a fifth cousin of Theodore) as his running mate. Harding virtually ignored Cox and essentially campaigned against Wilson, calling for a return to "normalcy." With an almost 4-to-1 spending advantage, Harding won a landslide victory by winning 37 states, including the first Republican victories in Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma (then the three most recently ratified U.S states).

The election was dominated by the aftermath of World War I and a hostile response to certain policies of Woodrow Wilson, as well as the massive reaction against the reformist zeal of the Progressive Era. The wartime economic boom had collapsed. Politicians were arguing over peace treaties and the question of America's entry into the League of Nations, which was overturned because of the return to non-interventionist opinion, a continuation of the nation's opinion since the early 1800s. Overseas, there were wars and revolutions. At home, 1919 was marked by major strikes in the meatpacking and steel industries, and large-scale race riots in Chicago and other cities. Anarchist attacks on Wall Street produced fears of radicals and terrorists. The Irish Catholic and German communities were outraged at Wilson's foreign policy, and his political position was critically weakened after he suffered a severe stroke in 1919 that rendered him unable to speak on his own behalf.

Harding's 26.2 percentage-point victory (60.3% to 34.1%) remains the largest popular-vote percentage margin in presidential elections after the so-called "Era of Good Feelings" ended with the unopposed election of James Monroe in 1820. Harding's 60.3% of the popular vote was also the greatest percentage since 1820, but has since been exceeded by Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and Richard Nixon in 1972.

This election was the first since the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 18, 1920, and thus the first in which women had the right to vote in all 48 states (in the 1916 presidential election, about 30 states had permitted women to participate). As a result, the total popular vote increased dramatically, from 18.5 million in 1916 to 26.8 million in 1920.[1] This election is also notable for being the first of three in which a sitting U.S. senator was elected president (the others were 1960 and 2008).


Republican Party nomination[edit]

Republican candidates:

On June 8, the Republican National Convention met in Chicago. The race was wide open, and soon the convention deadlocked between Major General Leonard Wood and Governor Frank Orren Lowden of Illinois.

Other names placed in nomination included Senators Warren G. Harding of Ohio, Hiram Johnson of California, and Miles Poindexter of Washington, Governor Calvin Coolidge of Massachusetts, philanthropist Herbert Hoover, and Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler. Senator Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin was not formally placed in nomination, but received the votes of his state delegation nonetheless. Harding was nominated for president on the tenth ballot, after some delegates shifted their allegiances. The results of the ten ballots were as follows:

Presidential Balloting, Republican National Convention 1920
Warren G. Harding65.559.058.561.578.089.0105.0133.0374.5644.7692.2
Leonard Wood287.5289.5303.0314.5299.0311.5312.0299.0249.0181.5156.0
Frank Orren Lowden211.5259.5282.5289.0303.0311.5311.5307.0121.528.011.0
Hiram Johnson133.5146.0148.0140.5133.5110.099.587.082.080.880.8
William Cameron Sproul84.078.579.579.582.577.
Nicholas Murray Butler69.541.
Calvin Coolidge34.
Robert M. La Follette24.
Jeter Connelly Pritchard21.010.0000000000
Miles Poindexter20.
Howard Sutherland17.
Herbert Hoover5.

Harding's nomination, said to have been secured in negotiations among party bosses in a "smoke-filled room," was engineered by Harry M. Daugherty, Harding's political manager, who became United States Attorney General after his election. Prior to the convention, Daugherty was quoted as saying, "I don't expect Senator Harding to be nominated on the first, second, or third ballots, but I think we can afford to take chances that about 11 minutes after two, Friday morning of the convention, when 15 or 12 weary men are sitting around a table, someone will say: 'Who will we nominate?' At that decisive time, the friends of Harding will suggest him and we can well afford to abide by the result." Daugherty's prediction described essentially what occurred, but historians Richard C. Bain and Judith H. Parris argue that Daugherty's prediction has been given too much weight in narratives of the convention.

Once the presidential nomination was finally settled, the party bosses and Sen. Harding recommended Wisconsin Sen. Irvine Lenroot to the delegates for the second spot, but the delegates revolted and nominated Coolidge, who was very popular over his handling of the Boston Police Strike from the year before. The Tally:

Vice Presidential Balloting,
Republican Nat'l Convention 1920
Calvin Coolidge674.5
Irvine Lenroot146.5
Henry Justin Allen68.5
Henry W. Anderson28
Asle Gronna24
Hiram Johnson22.5
Jeter Connelly Pritchard11

Source for convention coverage: Richard C. Bain and Judith H. Parris, Convention Decisions and Voting Records (Washington DC: Brookings Institution, 1973), pp. 200–208.

Democratic Party nomination[edit]

Democratic candidates:

A ticket purchased by a guest of the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.

It was widely accepted prior to the election that President Woodrow Wilson would not run for a third term, and would certainly not be nominated if he did make an attempt to regain the nomination. While Vice-President Thomas R. Marshall had long held a desire to succeed Wilson, his indecisive handling of the situation around Wilson's illness and incapacity destroyed any credibility he had as a candidate, and in the end he did not formally put himself forward for the nomination.

Although William Gibbs McAdoo (Wilson's son-in-law and former Treasury Secretary) was the strongest candidate, Wilson blocked his nomination in hopes a deadlocked convention would demand that he run for a third term, even though he was seriously ill, physically immobile, and in seclusion at the time. The Democrats, meeting in San Francisco between June 28 and July 6 (the first time a major party held its nominating convention in an urban center on the Pacific coast), nominated another newspaper editor from Ohio, Governor James M. Cox, as their presidential candidate, and 38-year-old Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, a fifth cousin of the late president Theodore Roosevelt, for vice-president.

Early favorites for the nomination had included McAdoo and Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer. Others placed in nomination included New York Governor Al Smith, United Kingdom Ambassador John W. Davis, New Jersey Governor Edward I. Edwards, and Oklahoma Senator Robert Latham Owen.

General election[edit]

Return to normalcy[edit]

See also: Normalcy

Warren Harding's main campaign slogan was a "return to normalcy", playing upon the weariness of the American public after the social upheaval of the Progressive Era. Additionally, the international responsibilities engendered by the American victory in World War I and the Treaty of Versailles proved deeply unpopular, causing a reaction against Wilson, who had pushed especially hard for the latter.

Ethnic issues[edit]

Poster for the 1920 Democratic presidential ticket

Irish Americans were powerful in the Democratic party, and groups such as Clan na Gael opposed going to war alongside their enemy Britain, especially after the violent suppression of the Easter Rising of 1916. Wilson won them over in 1917 by promising to ask Britain to give Ireland its independence. Wilson had won the presidential election of 1916 with strong support from German-Americans and Irish-Americans, largely because of his slogan "He kept us out of war" and the longstanding American policy of isolationism. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, however, he reneged on his commitments to the Irish-American community, and it vehemently denounced him. His dilemma was that Britain was his war ally. Events such as the anti-British Black Tom and Kingsland Explosions in 1916 on American soil (in part the result of wartime Irish and German co-ordination) and the Irish anti-conscription crisis of 1918 were all embarrassing to recall in 1920.[2][3]

Britain had already passed an Irish Home Rule Act in 1914, suspended for the war's duration. However the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin had led to increased support for the more radical Sinn Féin who in 1919 formed the First Dáil, effectively declaring Ireland independent, sparking the Irish War of Independence. Britain was to pass the Government of Ireland Act in late 1920, by which Ireland would have 2 home-ruled states within the British empire. This satisfied Wilson. The provisions of these were inadequate to the supporters of the Irish Republic, however, which claimed full sovereignty. This position was also supported by many Irish Americans. The American Committee for Relief in Ireland was set up in 1920 to assist victims of the Irish War of Independence of 1919–21. Some Irish-American Senators joined the "irreconcilables" who blocked the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and United States membership in the League of Nations.

Wilson blamed the Irish Americans and German Americans for the lack of popular support for his unsuccessful campaign to have the United States join the League of Nations, saying, "There is an organized propaganda against the League of Nations and against the treaty proceeding from exactly the same sources that the organized propaganda proceeded from which threatened this country here and there with disloyalty, and I want to say—I cannot say too often—any man who carries a hyphen about with him [i.e., a hyphenated American] carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready."[4]

Of the $5,500,000 raised by supporters of the Irish Republic in the United States in 1919-20, the Dublin parliament (Dáil Éireann) voted in June 1920 to spend $500,000 on the American presidential election.[5] How this money was spent remains unclear. Ironically, the lawyer who had advised the fundraisers was Franklin D. Roosevelt, the losing vice-presidential candidate. In any case, the Irish American city machines sat on their hands during the election, allowing the Republicans to roll up unprecedented landslides in every major city. Many German-American Democrats voted Republican or stayed home, giving the GOP landslides in the rural Midwest.


Roosevelt and Cox at a campaign appearance in Washington, D.C.

Wilson had hoped for a "solemn referendum" on the League of Nations, but did not get one. Harding waffled on the League, thereby keeping Idaho Senator William Borah and other Republican "irreconcilables" in line. Cox also hedged. He went to the White House to seek Wilson's blessing and apparently endorsed the League, but—upon discovering its unpopularity among Democrats—revised his position to one that would accept the League only with reservations, particularly on Article Ten, which would require the United States to participate in any war declared by the League (thus taking the same standpoint as Republican Senate leader Henry Cabot Lodge). As reporter Brand Whitlock observed, the League was an issue important in government circles, but rather less so to the electorate. He also noted that the campaign was not being waged on issues: "The people, indeed, do not know what ideas Harding or Cox represents; neither do Harding or Cox. Great is democracy."[6] False rumors circulated that Senator Harding had "Negro blood," but this did not greatly hurt Harding's election campaign.

Governor Cox made a whirlwind campaign that took him to rallies, train station speeches, and formal addresses, reaching audiences totaling perhaps two million, whereas Senator Harding relied upon a "Front Porch Campaign" similar to that of William McKinley in 1896. It brought thousands of voters to Marion, Ohio, where Harding spoke from his home. GOP campaign manager Will Hays spent some $8.1 million, nearly four times the money Cox's campaign spent. Hays used national advertising in a major way (with advice from adman Albert Lasker). The theme was Harding's own slogan "America First." Thus the Republican advertisement in Collier's Magazine for October 30, 1920, demanded, "Let's be done with wiggle and wobble." The image presented in the ads was nationalistic, using catch phrases like "absolute control of the United States by the United States," "Independence means independence, now as in 1776," "This country will remain American. Its next President will remain in our own country," and "We decided long ago that we objected to foreign government of our people."[7]

On election night, November 2, 1920, commercial radio broadcast coverage of election returns for the first time. Announcers at KDKA-AM in Pittsburgh read telegraph ticker results over the air as they came in. This single station could be heard over most of the Eastern United States by the small percentage of the population that had radio receivers.

Harding's landslide came from all directions except the South. Irish- and German-American voters who had backed Wilson and peace in 1916 now voted against Wilson and Versailles. "A vote for Harding", said the German-language press, "is a vote against the persecutions suffered by German-Americans during the war." Not one major German-language newspaper supported Governor Cox.[8] Many Irish Americans, bitterly angry at Wilson's refusal to help Ireland at Versailles, simply abstained from voting in the presidential election. This allowed the Republicans to mobilize the ethnic vote, and Harding swept the big cities.

Clifford Berryman's cartoon depiction of Eugene V. Debs' campaign from prison.

This was the first election in which women from every state were allowed to vote, following the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in August 1920 (just in time for the general election).

Tennessee's vote for Warren G. Harding marked the first time since the end of Reconstruction that one of the 11 states of the former Confederacy had voted for a Republican presidential candidate. Tennessee had last been carried by a Republican when Ulysses Simpson Grant claimed it in 1868.

Despite the fact that Cox was defeated badly, his running mate Franklin D. Roosevelt became a well-known political figure because of his active and energetic campaign. In 1928 he was elected Governor of New York, and in 1932 he was elected president. He remained in power until his death in 1945 as the longest-serving American president in history.

Other candidates[edit]

Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs received 913,664 popular votes (3.4%), despite the fact that he was in prison at the time for advocating non-compliance with the draft during World War I. This was the largest number of popular votes ever received by a Socialist Party candidate in the United States, although not the largest percentage of the popular vote. Debs received double this percentage in the election of 1912.[9] The 1920 election was his fifth and last attempt to become president.

Parley P. Christensen of the Farmer-Labor Party took 265,411 votes (1.0%), while Prohibition Party candidate Aaron S. Watkins came in fifth with 189,339 votes (0.7%), the poorest showing for the Prohibition party since 1884. Since the Eighteenth Amendment, which initiated the period of Prohibition in the United States, had passed the previous year, this single-issue party seemed less relevant.


Results by county explicitly indicating the percentage for the winning candidate. Shades of red are for Harding (Republican), shades of blue are for Cox (Democratic), and shades of green are for "Other(s)" (Non-Democratic/Non-Republican).[10]

The total vote of 1920 was roughly 26,750,000, an increase of 8,000,000 from 1916.[11] The Democratic vote was almost exactly the vote of 1916, but the Republican vote nearly doubled, as did the "other" vote. As pointed out earlier, the great increase in the total number of votes is mainly attributable to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Nearly two-thirds of the counties (1,949) were carried by the Republicans. The Democrats carried only 1,101 counties, a smaller number than Alton Parker had carried in 1904 and consequently the smallest number during the Fourth Party System. Not a single county was carried in the Pacific section by the Democrats, and only 13 in the Mountain section, where in 1916 there had been 223. There was a loss in every section in the Union and a loss in every state except South Carolina and Mississippi. Eleven counties in Texas recorded more votes cast for "Other(s)" than either of the two-party candidates.

The distribution of the county vote accurately represents the overwhelming character of the majority vote. Harding had 60.35% of the total vote, the largest percentage in the Fourth Party System, exceeding that of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.

Although the Democratic portion was 34.13%, in no section did its voting share sink below 24%, and in 3 sections it topped the poll. Obviously the Democratic Party was still an opposition force on national terms, despite the fact that Cox won the electoral vote of only 11 states and had fewer votes in the electoral college than Parker had won in 1904. More than two-thirds of the Cox vote was in states carried by Harding.

The distribution of the vote by counties, and the study of percentages in sections, states, and counties, seem to show that it was Wilson and foreign policies that received the brunt of attack, not the Democratic Party and the domestic proposals of the period 1896-1914.[12]

Presidential candidatePartyHome statePopular voteElectoral
Running mate
CountPctVice-presidential candidateHome stateElect. vote
Warren G. HardingRepublicanOhio16,144,09360.32%404Calvin CoolidgeMassachusetts404
James M. CoxDemocraticOhio9,139,66134.15%127Franklin D. RooseveltNew York127
Eugene V. DebsSocialistIndiana913,6933.41%0Seymour StedmanIllinois0
Parley P. ChristensenFarmer-LaborIllinois265,3980.99%0Max S. HayesOhio0
Aaron S. WatkinsProhibitionIndiana188,7870.71%0D. Leigh ColvinNew York0
James E. FergusonAmericanTexas47,9680.18%0William J. HoughNew York0
William Wesley CoxSocialist LaborMissouri31,0840.12%0August GillhausNew York0
Robert Colvin MacauleySingle TaxPennsylvania5,7500.02%0Richard C. BarnumOhio0
Needed to win266266

Source (Popular Vote): Leip, David. 1920 Presidential Election Results. Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections (September 11, 2012).

Source (Electoral Vote): Electoral College Box Scores 1789–1996. Official website of the National Archives. (July 31, 2005).

Popular vote
Electoral vote

Results by state[edit]


States won by Harding/Coolidge
States won by Cox/Roosevelt
Warren G. Harding
James Cox
Eugene Debs
Parley Christensen
Aaron Watkins
James Ferguson
William Cox
Socialist Labor
MarginState Total
# %electoral
# %electoral
# %electoral
# %electoral
# %electoral
# %electoral
# %electoral
# %#
New Hampshire495,19659.84462,66239.39-1,2340.78-------------32,53420.45159,092NH
New Jersey14611,54167.6514256,88728.42-27,1413.00-2,2000.24-4,7340.52----9230.10-354,65439.23903,943NJ
New Mexico357,63454.68346,66844.27----1,1041.05----------10,96610.40105,406NM
New York451,871,16764.5645781,23826.95-203,2017.01-18,4130.64-19,6530.68----4,8410.17-1,089,92937.602,898,513NY
North Carolina12232,84843.22-305,44756.70124460.08--------------72,599-13.48538,741NC
North Dakota5160,07277.79537,42218.19-8,2824.02-------------122,65059.60205,776ND
Rhode Island5107,46363.97555,06232.78-4,3512.59----5100.30----4950.29-52,40131.19167,981RI
South Carolina92,6103.91-64,17096.059280.04--------------61,560-92.1466,808SC
South Dakota5110,69260.74535,93819.72----34,70719.04-9000.49-------74,75441.02182,237SD
West Virginia8282,00755.308220,78943.30-5,6181.10----1,5280.30-------61,21812.00509,942WV

Close states[edit]

Margin of victory less than 5% (25 electoral votes):

  1. Kentucky, 0.44%
  2. Tennessee, 3.10%

Margin of victory between 5% and 10% (10 electoral votes):

  1. Oklahoma, 5.50%

Geography of Results[edit]

Cartographic Gallery[edit]


Counties with Highest Percentage of the Vote (Republican)

  1. McIntosh County, North Dakota 95.76%
  2. Leslie County, Kentucky 94.22%
  3. Sevier County, Tennessee 93.60%
  4. Sheridan County, North Dakota 92.98%
  5. Billings County, North Dakota 92.81%

Counties with Highest Percentage of the Vote (Democratic)

  1. Chester County, South Carolina 100.00%
  2. Edgefield County, South Carolina 100.00%
  3. Clarendon County, South Carolina 100.00%
  4. Bamberg County, South Carolina 100.00%
  5. Hampton County, South Carolina 100.00%

Counties with Highest Percentage of the Vote (Other)

  1. Austin County, Texas 61.72%
  2. Fort Bend County, Texas 59.35%
  3. Lavaca County, Texas 57.76%
  4. Fayette County, Texas 55.12%
  5. Washington County, Texas 54.04%

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, accessed Jan. 2012.
  2. ^ Landrich's 1937 book on sabotage incidents
  3. ^ Essay by M. Plowman (2009) on the complexities of the "Indo-Irish-German" conspiracy in the USA during the war.
  4. ^ American Rhetoric, "Final Address in Support of the League of Nations", Woodrow Wilson, delivered September 25, 1919 in Pueblo, CO.
  5. ^ Dáil vote, 29 June 1920
  6. ^ Sinclair, p. 168
  7. ^ Sinclair, p. 162
  8. ^ Sinclair, p. 163
  9. ^ Presidentelect.org
  10. ^ The Presidential Vote, 1896-1932 – Google Books. Stanford University Press. 1934. Retrieved August 12, 2014. 
  11. ^ The Presidential Vote, 1896-1932, Edgar E. Robinson, p. 19
  12. ^ The Presidential Vote, 1896-1932, Edgar E. Robinson, pg. 21
  13. ^ "1920 Presidential General Election Data - National". Retrieved March 18, 2013. 


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]