Election of 1940: Franklin Roosevelt Breaks the Two Term Tradition

Democratic Party: Franklin Roosevelt (New York) and Henry Wallace (Iowa)
Republican Party: Wendell Willkie (New York) and Charles McNary (Oregon)

Election Results:
Roosevelt and Wallace: 27.31 million popular votes, 449 electoral votes.
Willkie and McNary: 22.34 million popular votes, 82 electoral votes.

As the 1940 presidential election loomed large, the question of whether or not Franklin Roosevelt would break the two term tradition became a popular one within Washington and in the media. On the one hand, the nation was still recovering from the Great Depression and the war in Europe began to rage to the point where increased American involvement might become necessary. Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership had proven invaluable symbolically and practically during the 1930s depression and may prove necessary in the case of war. On the other hand, great presidents like Theodore Roosevelt and GeorgeWashington had adhered to an unspoken two term limit, in order to prevent the type of tyranny that the first settlers to America were running away from.

Roosevelt’s decision to run for a third term was embraced by many in the Democratic rank-and-file, who saw his political fortitude as an asset more valuable than the two term tradition. However, some Democratic leaders were upset with Roosevelt’s decision, in part because he consulted few people about it and also because there were several Democratic leaders that were presidential hopefuls. John Nance Garner, the vice president and a 1932 presidential hopeful, became estranged from the president over his two terms due to the president’s liberal use of the executive powers and abstained from running as the vice president in 1940. Instead, Roosevelt chose Henry Wallace, his secretary of agriculture, to run in the second spot. As well, Postmaster General James Farley, a key member of the Democratic leadership structure, resigned in protest of Roosevelt’s decision to run for a third term. Despite the tumult, Roosevelt won easy renomination to the Democratic ticket.

The Republican Party, which had been stymied by Roosevelt throughout the 1930s by his popularity and the success of some of his programs, had difficulty approaching the 1940 presidential election. The two major candidates were New York attorney Thomas Dewey, a moderate Republican who supported the New Deal in general, and Ohio Senator Robert Taft, representing the more conservative wing of the Republican Party. To split the difference, the Republicans settled on corporate lawyer and former Democrat Wendell Willkie. Willkie defected from the Democratic Party in 1938 in protest of the monopolization of utility services by the Tennessee Valley Authority (Willkie was also the head of a major utility provider). Willkie’s combination of dismay at the more draconian aspects of New Deal ideology and his somewhat liberal politics (internationalist, supported some specific New Deal programs) made him, in the eyes of Republicans, a dynamic candidate to face off against Roosevelt.

The campaign consisted of Willkie attacking the Roosevelt administration for planning to lead the nation into war by making secret deals from the White House with European allies while Roosevelt met supporters at the White House and toured defense plants. Roosevelt’s insistence that he would not lead the nation into war unless provoked and his slogan “better a third termer than a third rater” fended off Willkie’s assault on Roosevelt’s grab for power in a third term. While Willkie did better than Alf Landon in 1936, he still only carried ten states and Roosevelt’s third term was ushered in with a strong mandate.

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