The "Bought Vote" of the 47 Percent


Robert Mason is senior lecturer in history at the University of Edinburgh and the author of "The Republican Party and American Politics from Hoover to Reagan" (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Anti-New Deal sign near Davenport, Iowa, in the winter of 1940. Credit: Library of Congress. Note the Cyrillic И.

Speaking at a fundraising event in May, Mitt Romney discussed the electoral challenge that he faced in seeking to defeat Barack Obama. Forty-seven percent of Americans "will vote for the president no matter what," Romney said. These are voters "who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it."

The Mother Jones report by David Corn that revealed these remarks offered a rare opportunity to learn the strategic thinking of a present-day politician that he intended for private, not public, consumption. Conservative concern over time about the electoral implications of federal spending, by contrast, is far from rare. Romney’s words echoed one of the dominant responses among Republicans to the electoral challenge that they faced when Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal elevated government programs to a new degree of significance in public policy and party politics, as the administration battled against the Great Depression.

This interpretation of the New Deal’s popular appeal attributed crucial significance to the "bought vote" -- the direct beneficiaries of federal largesse -- in explaining Democratic victory and Republican defeat. Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan was among the first to advance the thesis; he was sure that support among his constituents for the New Deal was in decline during the fall of 1933, until Civil Works Administration relief payments began, boosting popular enthusiasm for the administration. According to Vandenberg, the administration’s spending plans for 1934 were "calculated virtually to Tammanyize the whole United States -- the good old theory that those who get money out of a government will vote for the party which sponsored the payments." It was an interpretation of Democratic electoral success shared by many Republicans (especially the more conservative ones). When he wrote an analysis of the 1936 election results for private circulation within party circles, Herbert Hoover discussed the bought vote ("[t]he enormous government pay rolls") second only to the economic upturn of that year in explaining the Roosevelt landslide. Surveying political trends two years later, a Philadelphia lawyer and party activist observed to a fellow Republican that "our situation is that 90 percent of those on relief and the millions in federal and state jobs are for Roosevelt, and 90 percent and more -- I would say almost 99 and 44/100 percent -- of the intelligent people are against Roosevelt."

During the New Deal, a fierce debate raged among Republicans about their party’s problems, and by no means all agreed with the bought vote thesis. For example, Charles P. Taft -- an aide to Alf Landon in 1936 and a pioneer of "me-too" Republicanism in his book of that year, You and I -- and Roosevelt, argued that relief recipients were as likely as any other voter to dislike the poor management and inefficiency that he diagnosed as endemic to the New Deal. According to Taft’s analysis, the administration’s relief programs did not straightforwardly buy votes, but even potentially constituted a pro-Republican issue. This was because spending’s beneficiaries as well as other voters, he believed, were sure to support better government, a commitment to which was at the heart of Taft’s me-too design for the party. Furthermore, just as commentators today are questioning Romney’s math on the subject of the 47 percent "dependent upon government," some Republicans argued that the bought vote was not significant enough to account for the electoral majority that Roosevelt was constructing for the Democrats. "For each individual whose vote has been bought," said Frank Altschul, a New York Republican, in 1938, "there are countless others who resent the process of vote-buying."

There was, of course, evidence to support the bought-vote argument, because the nation’s socioeconomically underprivileged were a significant element of the Democrats’ coalition, and the New Deal aimed to alleviate their plight. A Gallup poll in March 1936 found that nearly eight in ten relief recipients supported FDR’s re-election. There were, moreover, widespread accusations that local officeholders (sometimes Republican as well as Democratic) manipulated relief payments in search of political favor. A moment of political indiscretion in 1938, involving the head of the Works Progress Administration, lent further support to the view. "We shall tax and tax, spend and spend, and elect and elect," Harry Hopkins said, according to several journalists, as a way to summarize the New Deal’s appeal at the polls.

Belief in the bought vote nevertheless did little to help Republicans in fashioning a promising response to the New Deal. The thesis fostered electoral pessimism and even defeatism among 1930s Republicans. It discouraged serious, searching contemplation of the best way forward for their party in this new age of activist government. The paradigm dismissed support for New Deal liberalism as underpinned by selfish motivation, overlooking its potential power in the battle of ideas between Democratic advocates of big government and their Republican opponents, as politicians searched for answers to Depression problems.

When the number of federal spending’s direct beneficiaries declined in the 1940s, Republicans realized that the bought vote thesis no longer explained their electoral problems. A more sophisticated version of the argument then emerged, which interpreted the Democratic party’s politics of interest-group pluralism as a form of vote-buying behavior. Republicans who advanced this argument saw Democratic friendliness toward the causes of civil rights and labor within this framework, securing support among African Americans and union members in return. Nevertheless, as late as 1951, Representative Joseph W. Martin, Jr., of Massachusetts, the House minority leader, spoke critically of "despair and defeatism" among fellow Republicans, grounded partly in the belief that "the voters have been bought with their own money and that we will go up against a controlled vote."

When Romney spoke to Republican contributors about the 47 percent of Americans inescapably hostile to the party’s cause, he was surely seeking to mobilize their commitment and their loyalty to that cause. In echoing voices in an earlier debate about the arrival of New Deal liberalism, he revealed the deep-seated persistence of the challenge that leading Republicans face not only in balancing the demands of the party base with those of "swing" voters, but also in fashioning the most persuasive case available against activist government.

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