Monday, October 15, 2018

Helmut Norpoth's "Unsurpassed: The Popular Appeal of Franklin Roosevelt"

Helmut Norpoth is Professor of Political Science at Stony Brook University. He is the co-author of The American Voter Revisited and author of Confidence Regained: Economics, Mrs. Thatcher and the British Voter.

Norpoth applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Unsurpassed: The Popular Appeal of Franklin Roosevelt, and reported the following:
From page 99:
By October 1940, support for aiding Britain was the popular option, while opposition, commonly called isolationism, was in a minority. The balance in favor of aiding Britain was three to two in the October 1940 Gallup poll. Had it been the reverse, this issue would have doomed FDR's reelection prospect in 1940.
This passage from page 99 of Unsurpassed: The Popular Appeal of Franklin Roosevelt highlights the critical importance of public opinion about foreign policy for FDR's approval and electoral success. Had he not run and won a third term in 1940, FDR would not have been commander in chief when the United States entered the war. History might have turned out quite differently.

In 1940, as shown by ample polls, the American people said good-bye to isolationism and embraced a policy of doing everything, even at the risk of war, to help Britain win against Nazi-Germany. For example, in an October 1939 poll, 67 percent opposed such a policy, while a year later, 62 percent approved it. This was not a forgone conclusion. Leaders of the isolationist movement like the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh and Montana Senator Burton Wheeler attacked FDR as a warmonger bent on saving the British Empire at America’s expense. But it was Roosevelt who commanded the “bully pulpit.” A master of the new medium, radio, he appealed to Americans at their homes with his fabled “fireside chats.” It was an invention of his own that typically reached more than turned out to vote. In those chats and other addresses that were broadcast the President pleaded his case that helping England in the war was helping the United States avert grave and imminent peril. It was imperative, in his words, to turn the United States into the “arsenal of democracy.” Almost every time FDR spoke to the American public or gave an address to Congress that was broadcast he chipped away at the rock of isolationism.

Roosevelt also took advantage of a new device for feeling the public pulse. He eagerly embraced polling, not simply what he could glean from reports of Gallup polls in the press. In early 1940, he enlisted the personal services of Princeton Professor Hadley Cantril’s operation to brief him on what polls revealed about the views of Americans on foreign policy issues. So this captain was not operating in the dark about the passages and shoals of public opinion. FDR was able to divine which actions most Americans would support and which ones not, whether it was repeal of Neutrality Acts, military spending, the draft, Destroyers-for-Bases, Lend-Lease or a declaration of war, among other things. At the same time, public opinion in 1940 also registered a reversal on the question of giving FDR a third term. He learned of this change of heart, too, removing what had looked like an immovable obstacle to an unprecedented third term.
Learn more about Unsurpassed at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue