Willoughby: Harding-Cox election a century ago resembled the 2020 race
The election of 1920 holds the record for the largest popular vote margin, Warren Harding’s 60.3% to James Cox’s 34%. Although many voters felt sure they could predict the winner before the votes were tallied, you would not have sensed that outcome in Aspen.
Newspapers during that decade openly expressed partisanship, they did not even pretend to present both sides. From its founding the Aspen Times had been a Republican paper. For a couple decades Democratic papers included The Aspen Democrat-Times, edited and owned by Charles Dailey. Dailey pushed his candidate James Cox, Governor of Ohio, and attacked Republican Senator Warren Harding, also from Ohio.
Cox gave nearly 400 speeches in 36 states. A speech in Denver attracted 10,000 people, and one in Greeley brought in 1,000. Harding’s speeches rambled with platitudes that excited few, and drew derogatory comments from reporters. But he did not travel to speak. Their strategies resembled those of 2020’s candidates, Trump tromps down the campaign trail and Biden blasts the campaign airwaves. Harding’s “front porch campaign” hosted press conferences at his home.
Cox, a former progressive, spoke of reforms. Like Biden, he had to compete with the far left. Eugene Debs ran as a candidate of the Socialist Party. At the same time, Harding, like Biden, said the country had to “return to normalcy.” The U.S. had just endured millions of deaths from the 1918 Influenza, World War I and continuous labor battles. In Aspen, several major mines closed. As today, Americans clamored for less chaos, especially from government.
Foreign policy defined the candidates. Cox reluctantly championed Democratic President Wilson’s wish for America to join and promote the League of Nations. Harding opposed the move.
Dailey’s Democrat-Times focused on that debate. One of his headlines stated, “German-Americans not American Germans are for Harding.” He said Germany wanted Harding to win (sound familiar?). My favorite headline: “Wobbly Wobblies Wob.” The story did not relate news of the labor Wobblies, rather it attacked Harding’s lack of support for the League of Nations.
As in 2020, women weighed in. The 19th Amendment to recognize a woman’s right to vote had not yet been ratified, but it was close to that goal. Cox supported the amendment and in July called on Louisiana to quickly ratify it. With the headline “Cox for Women” Daily reiterated from a speech, “Women’s sense of humanitarian in government, their helpfulness in problems which require public judgment and their unquestioned progressive spirit entitles them to a voice in the readjustment now at hand.”
Soon after, Dailey contrasted his words with another headline, “Harding Turns Women Down.” Suffragettes had approached Harding and asked him to urge the governors of Vermont and Connecticut to have their legislatures hold special sessions to ratify the amendment. Harding responded that although he, “personally hopes to see women’s suffrage established at an early date”, he did not think it appropriate for him to make that demand.
The Amendment was ratified before the election and many women voted for the first time for a President.
Both candidates owned newspapers in Ohio. Harding owned the Marion Star of Marion, and Cox owned a newspaper in Dayton. After he lost the election, Cox expanded his newspaper into a large chain. Both ran with vice presidential candidates each of whom later became president. Calvin Coolidge took over for Harding when he died near the end of his term. Franklin Roosevelt ran with Cox. While president, Harding maintained one of the highest popularity ratings up to that time. However, his reputation revelations of the Teapot Dome corruption scandal tarnished his reputation posthumously.
The election, a landslide, gave Cox only states of the Deep South and Texas. Perhaps Dailey had moved voters toward the much closer result in Aspen, where Harding won 481 votes, just 50%, to Cox’s 407 votes, 42%. Eugene Debs of the Socialist Party garnered 41 votes, followed by the Farmer-Labor party candidate with 22, and the Prohibition candidate with 10.
Harding’s term did indeed bring normalcy to Aspen. Mines expanded and silver prices stabilized, so the economy stabilized. Calvin Coolidge completed Harding’s term and – to the chagrin of Charles Dailey – won the election of 1924 with another landslide.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.