Berkeley in the 1932 Election

By Steven Finacom
Friday November 09, 2007

It’s not at all unusual for the majority of Berkeley voters to wake up with a nasty political hangover the morning after a presidential election. 

Consider the results of seven of the last ten elections: Nixon, Nixon, Reagan, Reagan, Bush, Bush, Bush. Berkeley voted against them all, but was overruled by the rest of the country (or the Supreme Court, as the case may be). 

And it’s not just during the relatively recent past that Berkeley has gone through this experience. 

Seventy-five years ago this week, gloom must have been strong throughout much of the town as Berkeley voters picked up the morning newspapers to learn their favorite had gone down to defeat in the Nov. 8 balloting. 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt had defeated incumbent Herbert Hoover. 

Berkeley voters had strongly backed both the political establishment and the losing side. 

Berkeley was a Republican majority town. There were 35,781 Republican voters registered in November, 1932, exceeding all other party affiliates by more than 19,000. 

Berkeley had only 14,329 registered Democrats. Socialist registration was 577. 78 affiliated with the Prohibition Party and 1 with the Liberty Party. 1,661 registered as “non-partisan.” 

Nearly three out of four registered voters cast ballots. “Semi-official” totals reported in the Berkeley Gazette on November 10, 1932, gave 21,750 Berkeley votes to Hoover, 14,713 to Roosevelt, and 2,223 to Socialist candidate Norman Thomas. 

Even though the Republican demoralization was obvious—Hoover polled some 14,000 votes below Republican registration in Berkeley, while Roosevelt drew slightly more local votes than there were registered Democrats—it wasn’t enough to offset the vast Republican numerical advantage in registration. 

Hoover won a 56 percent Berkeley majority, against 38 percent for Roosevelt. This was almost the reverse of the national tally, where Roosevelt took nearly six out of 10 votes (57.4 percent) and prevailed with nearly 23 million votes to less than 16 million for Hoover. 

Berkeley did show a slight pink tinge, with Norman Thomas receiving about four times as many votes as there were officially registered Socialists in town. 

The watershed election limited Hoover to 59 electoral votes, signaled the end of the era of robust Progressive Republicanism, and launched the New Deal coalition which would rule in Washington for another generation. 

And Berkeley was on the wrong side of history. 

Now you might console yourself with the thought that even if the town was Republican, at least the professors and students at the now-famous liberal campus must have favored Roosevelt. 

And you would be wrong. 

Faculty votes, of course weren’t dis-aggregated from the citywide totals, and most UC students weren’t old enough to vote. Of those who were, most couldn’t register to vote at their college address. 

But of UC faculty asked in a fall, 1932, straw poll about their Presidential preferences, 231, or 53 percent, favored Hoover. 98 said they supported Roosevelt, and 83 would vote for Norman Thomas, the Socialist. The Communist and Prohibition Party candidates got one vote apiece. 

The Hoover majority reflected similar faculty political preferences at Washington State, University of Oregon, Oregon State, USC and Stanford. 

Meanwhile, a straw poll taken among some Cal undergraduates in early October, 1932, recorded 410 favoring Hoover, 180 for Roosevelt, and 162 for Norman Thomas. Other names were written in by 100 voters. 

To be fair, those unscientific polls perhaps showed a hint of the future liberal and politically eclectic Berkeley. In the student poll, Democrat, Socialist, and “Other” votes combined formed a slight majority (442) over the Hoover vote (410). And in the faculty poll, one in five had supported the Socialist. 

The 1932 national campaign was hard-fought and bitter, but very short by today’s standards. Real campaigning didn’t start until the fall, and Hoover himself took to the campaign trail only for the final few weeks, after staying in the White House and appearing presidential. 

Roosevelt made a swing through California, with a stop in San Francisco, while Hoover returned to his adopted home state on election eve to vote from his home in Palo Alto. 

Thousands cheered his campaign train as it arrived in Oakland, and he traveled across the Bay for what seemed a triumphant parade up Market Street in San Francisco. 

Thus, today’s most strongly liberal / progressive California communities gave a hero’s welcome in 1932 to the Republican candidate who would, hours later, be decisively retired from the national stage. 

The Oakland Tribune wrote, on Nov. 6, that Hoover’s personal campaigning “changed the whole direction of the campaign, turning the tide sufficient to make it apparent that another fortnight of argument would render the outcome anything but doubtful.” 

The election itself, of course, swept all those Hoover silent majority fantasies away. A weak Hoover tide lapped only through Pennsylvania and part of New England. Roosevelt won everything else, including California, then a Republican stronghold in national elections. 

The Tribune acknowledged “an unparalleled political upheaval” the day after as returns were tabulated across the state. Democrats were making big gains up and down the ticket. 

But there, too, Berkeley had to be different. 

In the Congressional election for a new district that included Berkeley and parts of Oakland, Republican and political newcomer Ralph Eltse won a three-way match against Democrat and former City Attorney Frank Cornish and former Mayor and Socialist candidate J. Stitt Wilson. 

For a third-party candidate, Wilson drew a strong 10,072 votes to Eltse’s 17,501. The drop off from Hoover’s Berkeley majority to Eltse’s was over 4,000 votes. Democrat Cornish ran third, with 9,075. Cornish supporters pointed out that the Wilson and Cornish votes combined would have beaten the Republican. 

Perhaps so, but that wouldn’t necessarily indicate a latent liberal majority in 1932 Berkeley. Wilson’s status as a well-known former mayor probably attracted at least some Republican votes. 

And while Socialist candidate Wilson got more than 17 times as many votes as there were official Socialist voters in Berkeley, apparently only about one in four of the people who voted for Wilson also cast ballots for Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate for President. 

In any case, Republican Eltse, although the winner, was swimming against the tide. California, which had only one Democrat in Congress before the election, sent 11 Democrats out of 20 in the State’s reapportionment-enlarged House delegation, along with newly-elected Democratic Senator William Gibbs McAdoo. 

“It was a grand house cleaning, with conservative and dry mis-representatives thrown in the discard by the stern hand of the voters,” the pro-Roosevelt San Francisco Examiner editorialized. “Dry,” of course, meaning those who supported Prohibition and lost statewide along with Hoover. 

In the state legislature, Republicans held their own in the Senate—helped by the fact that 17 Republican incumbents were not facing re-election in 1932—but lost a whopping 18 seats in the Assembly. Their majority there dropped to 55 out of 80, and Democratic Assemblymen increased from seven to 25.  

Looking back at the national election and its aftermath, historian Piers Brendon would later write in The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s: “…in just over three months the President averted catastrophe, restored the nation to psychological equilibrium and incidentally buttered his own political parsnips for life. He imbued the United States with a sense of purpose, unity and dynamism. He epitomized compassion in government. He reinvigorated public service and, like John F. Kennedy after him, got the young involved. He gave promise that the resources of democracy were equal to the crisis and that capitalism could heal itself. He exuded optimism. As Harold Ickes said, ‘It’s more than a New Deal. It’s a New World.’” 

California and the nation were on their way to a Democratic resurgence, led by Roosevelt. 

Berkeley was just slow in coming along for the ride.