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Alf Landon: For A While He Looked Like A Winner

October 13, 1987 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Alfred M. Landon will always be known as a big loser in American politics and he used to joke about it. But in the months before the 1936 presidential election, Landon looked like a winner. Many wrote off Franklin D. Roosevelt as a one-term president.

Landon wound up carrying only two states - Maine and Vermont - and wiseacres changed the old adage, ″As Maine goes, so goes the nation″ to ″As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.″

Landon, who died Monday at age 100, learned over the years to live with his historic loss. ″They might have forgotten me if it had been close,″ he’d say.

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He was the nation’s only Republican governor in 1936, at the pit of the Depression, and the GOP fell deeply in love with him. He was christened ″the Kansas Coolidge,″ after the last unsullied Republican winner, Calvin Coolidge.

America lacked scientific polls and computerized projections in those days. Anyone could speculate on the outcome right until the votes came in.

There seemed to be plenty of evidence that Landon would win.

Roosevelt was hissed everywhere as a power-grabber and a deficit spender. His victory in 1932 was seen as a fluke.

Most big newspapers opposed FDR. In front-page editorials, Hearst papers denounced the ″Raw Deal.″ Telephone calls to the Chicago Tribune were answered: ″Good morning. Do you know you have only X days left to save your country?″

Pundits Dorothy Thompson, Walter Lippmann and Mark Sullivan opposed the president. H. L. Mencken wrote that ″this dreadful burlesque of civilized government″ was near its end. Historian Charles Beard said Roosevelt’s ″spell of leadership is definitely broken.″

A Gallup report gave the GOP an even chance. A magazine, the Literary Digest, ran a straw poll based on telephone listings and auto registrations and said Landon would carry 32 states.

The Republicans raised $9 million to the Democrats’ $4 million. Under the slogan, ″Save the American Way of Life,″ the business community rallied behind Landon.

By July 1936, the Democratic National Committee wrote off New York and Illinois, and held slim hopes of carrying Minnesota, Indiana or Ohio. Roosevelt figured he’d win 360 electoral votes to Landon’s 171. Landon himself was confident of victory.

Democratic chieftain Jim Farley was alone in telling reporters that Roosevelt would carry all 48 states except Maine and Vermont. Hooted journalist Frederick Lewis Allen: ″Whoever believes a campaign manager’s prophecies?″

The Republican argued the New Deal had done little to relieve unemployment. The 12.8 million jobless of 1933 had fallen only to 9 million in 1936. The Democrats answered the numbers would have been far worse without the New Deal.

Landon was hurt by the right-wing ardor of supporters. Inherently a liberal Republican, he ran on a platform that was to the left of Democrats’ platform of 1932. But Landon’s allies misread FDR’s popularity. They linked Roosevelt with ″Communistic Russia.″ They campaigned against Social Security and its promise of retirement income for old workers.

Signs in factories warned, ″You’re sentenced to a weekly tax reduction for all your working life. You’ll have to serve the sentence unless you help reverse it November 3.″ Slips in pay envelopes read: ″Effective January 1937 we are compelled by a Roosevelt ‘New Deal’ law to make a 1 percent deduction from your wages and turn it over to the government.″

In the end, Roosevelt won 60.8 percent of the popular vote to Landon’s 36.5 per cent; FDR won 523 of the 531 electoral votes. Landon carried Vermont with 56.4 percent and Maine with 55.6.

Landon won 46 percent in his home state of Kansas. His other good states were New Hampshire, 48 percent; Iowa and South Dakota, 43; Indiana, Delaware and Massachusetts, 42; Pennsylvania and Nebraska 41; Kentucky, Connecticut and Rhode Island, 40.

Not until 1964 did a candidate, Lyndon Johnson, win as one-sided a victory, with 61 percent of the popular vote, still the highest percentage in history. In 1984, Ronald Reagan carried 49 states - all but Minnesota and the District of Columbia and won 58.8 percent of the popular vote.