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How Media Politics Was Born
To keep Upton Sinclair from becoming governor of California in 1934, his opponents invented a whole new kind of campaign
September/October 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 6
The American political campaign as we know it today was born on August 28, 1934, when Upton Sinclair, the muckraking author and lifelong socialist, won the Democratic primary for governor of California. Sinclair’s landslide primary victory left his opponents with only ten weeks until election day to turn back one of the strongest mass movements in the nation’s history. Extraordinary campaign tactics were clearly called for, and the Republicans pioneered strategies against Sinclair—including the first use of motion pictures to attack a candidate—that have now become the norm in the age of television.
“The Republican success,” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has observed, “marked a new advance in the art of public relations, in which advertising men now believed they could sell or destroy political candidates as they sold one brand of soap and defamed its competitor.” In another two decades, according to Schlesinger, “the techniques of manipulation, employed so crudely in 1934, would spread east, achieve a new refinement, and begin to dominate the politics of the nation.”
Today television commercials make and break candidates, and campaign coverage by the media has a significant impact on public opinion. Substance sometimes appears to count for little, and image for almost everything. It is little wonder that image makers, not experts on the issues, now dominate campaign staffs. It all started fifty-four years ago in California.
In September 1933 Upton Beall Sinclair, the author of The Jungle and more than forty other books, decided to run for governor of California. The amiable, fifty-four-year-old Pasadena resident had run for governor twice previously, both times on the Socialist party line, where he hadn’t won more than sixty thousand votes. This time, however, he was going to run as a Democrat.
After living in California for nineteen years, Sinclair had come to believe that the state was “governed by a small group of rich men whose sole purpose in life was to become richer.” The result of their rule was “hundreds of thousands driven from their homes” and “old people dying of slow starvation.” Most of the land in California, he believed, had been “turned over to money-lenders and banks.” One in four residents of Los Angeles was on relief, receiving an average of four and a half dollars a month, and Sinclair was not confident that President Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration was going to remedy that. After registering as a Democrat, Sinclair began his pursuit of the governorship, intending to win this time.
There were few original planks in Sinclair’s platform, but to his followers he was a prophet. To Time magazine he was an “evangel of nonsense” who “horrified and outraged the Vested Interests.”
“All my life,” Sinclair once boasted, “I have had fun in controversy.” His 1906 documentary novel The Jungle had led to passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Years later he had helped found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He later won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was nominated for a Nobel Prize by, among others, John Dewey and Bertrand Russell. He was friends with leading thinkers of his day, playing the violin with Albert Einstein and tennis with the radical poet and editor Max Eastman. Charlie Chaplin considered him one of his political mentors. “Practically alone among the American writers of his generation,” the critic Edmund Wilson observed, “he put to the American public the fundamental questions raised by capitalism in such a way that they could not escape them.” Next to Debs and Norman Thomas, he was the most famous socialist of his time.
Sinclair was five feet seven inches tall. By 1933 he had thin, graying hair and wore the pince-nez that would make him easily caricatured during the campaign. To Frank Scully of Esquire he was a “skinny, middle-aged keypounder looking like a carbon copy of Woodrow Wilson that got left out in the rain and shrunk.” His closest friends—and his bitterest enemies—called him Uppie.
“We must summon the courage to take the wild beast of greed by the beard,” Sinclair wrote in his campaign manifesto, I, Governor of California and How I Ended Poverty. By early 1934 thousands of Californians, many of them on relief, were responding. Sinclair’s rallying cry was End Poverty in California, or EPIC for short. Chapters of his End Poverty League sprang up throughout the state.
Then, as now, California was a caldron of extremes. It had the most left-wing ACLU chapter in the country and the strongest Ku Klux Klan presence outside the South. Strikes by California farm laborers in 1933 were the first in the United States. The state—a land of promise gone especially sour in the Depression—was ripe for EPIC’s soak-the-rich philosophy. Sinclair called for a huge increase in inheritance and property taxes, an unheard-of “steeply graduated” income tax, fifty-dollar-a-month pensions for the needy and the elderly, and the return of foreclosed farms and houses to their original owners. But the heart of his program was a proposal to put the jobless to work in idle factories and on unused farms. “Land colonies,” complete with kitchens and dormitories, would be established. They would trade what they produced with other EPIC enclaves.
There were few original planks in EPIC’s platform. Sinclair had merely adapted ideas from economic salvation plans already put forward by such national leaders (or demagogues) as Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin. The local press poked fun at the EPIC plan, but thousands of Californians embraced it, creating what Turner Catledge of The New York Times called “the first serious movement against the profit system in the United States.” By primary day there were a thousand EPIC clubs across the state, and the campaign’s tabloid newspaper, the EPIC News, had a circulation approaching a million copies weekly.
Sinclair spoke to overflow crowds in high school gyms, open fields, and arenas. Observers likened EPIC rallies to religious revivals. Time called Sinclair an “evangel of nonsense,” but to his followers he was a prophet, even a savior. His framed portrait hung in their homes. On primary day, in late August, Upton Sinclair received more than 430,000 votes, a total greater than that of all his eight Democratic opponents combined. “Congrats on nomination,” the politically obsessed poet Ezra Pound wrote from Italy. “Now beat the bank buzzards and get elected.”
Sinclair knew that to become the first Democratic governor of California in more than thirty years, he would need the support of national Democratic leaders, especially of President Roosevelt. A few days after winning the primary, Sinclair journeyed to Hyde Park for a two-hour conference. The President offered no endorsement, saying he was staying out of state politics. Privately Roosevelt told his aides that “it looks as though Sinclair will win if he stages an orderly, common sense campaign but will be beaten if he makes a fool of himself.”
Sinclair’s impending victory in the nation’s sixth-largest state became big news nationally. H. L. Mencken wrote that Sinclair, who “has been swallowing quack cures for all the sorrows of mankind since the turn of the century, is at it again in California, and on such a scale that the whole country is attracted by the spectacle.” Will Rogers observed that if Sinclair could deliver even some of the things he promised, he “should not only be Governor of one state, but President of all ‘em.” Theodore Dreiser called Sinclair “the most impressive political phenomenon that America has yet produced.”
But Time, hinting at what was to come, declared: “No politician since William Jennings Bryan has so horrified and outraged the Vested Interests....They hate him as a muckraker. They hate him as a Socialist....They hate him as a ‘free-love’ cultist....They hate him as an atheist....” On Wall Street the market value of the twenty top California stocks dropped 16 percent following Sinclair’s nomination.
Sinclair’s friends started calling him Governor, but the title still belonged to a Republican party stalwart named Frank Merriam. The Los Angeles Times, backing the incumbent, declared that the Merriam-Sinclair contest “is not a fight between men: it is a vital struggle between constructive and destructive forces.”
California’s conservative leaders had not taken Sinclair seriously until it was too late to save the Democratic party. Now the whole state was up for grabs, and they would not make the same mistake again. “Those whose stakes in California are greatest,” Time noted, “hold themselves personally responsible to their class throughout the nation to smash Upton Sinclair.” A new kind of political campaign was about to begin.
Name calling and vote buying were nothing new in American politics, of course. Party machines had often made free elections a farce in big cities, and presidential campaigns were sometimes rough-and-tumble too. The national campaign that had been most similar to the 1934 California gubernatorial race was the contest for President in 1896 between the crusading Democrat William Jennings Bryan and the staid Republican William McKinley. Bryan’s attacks on the moneyed class had inspired amazing fervor among farmers and workers.
Recognizing the inadequacy of campaign tactics as they were then known, McKinley’s adviser Mark Hanna developed a plan and a national party organization that ushered political campaigns into the twentieth century. Tens of millions of leaflets, explaining McKinley’s positions, were mailed to voters around the country. Fourteen hundred pro-McKinley speakers took to the stump. Hanna raised huge sums of money by assessing banks and businesses a percentage of their assets or profits. Spies were installed at Bryan headquarters. “Republican writers and speakers,” Gordon C. Fite has observed, “exerted every effort to portray Bryan as a wild-eyed radical whose election on what they charged was a socialistic Democratic platform would destroy the American system.”
McKinley won by a narrow margin. Fund raising and party organization were, as Mark Hanna showed, everything. Until the 1930s not much had changed in political campaigns except for the limited use of radio.
What was new in 1934 was a political party’s utilization of media experts from outside the party apparatus, the manipulation of the print media to promote a wholly negative campaign, and the first use of motion pictures in a campaign. These developments signaled the approach of a era “when election specialists, hired out as mercenaries,” as Schlesinger put it, would play a larger role than the party itself in mobilizing voters.
There was something else unprecedented about the 1934 campaign to defeat Upton Sinclair: the cost. In the hotly contested 1932 race for President between Hoover and Roosevelt, each party had spent an estimated three million dollars across the country. Two years later the Republicans spent upward of three times that amount in just one state—California.
When news that Upton Sinclair was now favored to win the governorship reached Europe, William Randolph Hearst cut short a vacation in Germany to return to California, calling the Democratic candidate “an unbalanced and unscrupulous political speculator.” Louis B. Mayer, the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and the vice-chairman of the state Republican party, hurried home from France “to organize the fight of the film industry against Upton Sinclair’s candidacy for Governor,” according to a United Press dispatch. In northern California, the Alameda County district attorney, Earl Warren, who was also the Republican state chairman, took to the campaign trail, charging that Sinclairism was threatening “to overwhelm California with Communism.”
The Republican leaders recognized that they were up against a ground swell of grass-roots fervor. But they also knew that the man leading the movement was uniquely vulnerable to a smear campaign. In the Bible, Job says, “…that mine adversary had written a book!” Sinclair had written forty-seven of them. The thousands of his own overheated words would make him an easv mark for a hatchet job.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars were flowing into a fund to defeat Sinclair, but the Republicans had little time to turn the tide. They would have to enlist expert assistance from outside the party ranks. To this end the GOP hierarchy hired two young political consultants, Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, to help direct what Arthur Schlesinger has called “the first all-out public relations Blitzkrieg in American politics.”
With just two months remaining until the election, “we had to make a drastic change in public opinion,” as Whitaker later put it. For three days he and Baxter pored through dozens of Sinclair’s novels, compiling damaging quotations. A favorite gambit was to take something one of Sinclair’s villains had said and attribute it directly to the author. In this way, for example, Sinclair could be cited for calling disabled war veterans “good-for-nothing soldiers.”
After selecting the excerpts, Whitaker and Baxter hired an artist named Bill LeNoire, who incorporated them into a series of cartoons attacking “the blot of Sinclairism.” Whitaker and Baxter shipped the cartoons to newspapers around the state. At least three thousand appeared in print.
Two young political consultants pored through his novels, compiling damaging quotations to use against him. And they sent anti-Sinclair cartoons to newspapers all over the state.
“Sure, those quotations were irrelevant,” Baxter said later. “But we had one objective: to keep him [Sinclair] from becoming Governor. But because he was a good man, we were sorry we had to do it that way.” The press agents, who later became key figures in dozens of California campaigns, also created a half-million-dollar radio assault on the EPIC candidate.
Virtually every newspaper in the state lashed out at Sinclair. An editorial cartoon in Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner pictured Sinclair as “The Fourth Horseman,” racing to catch up to Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. Following Whitaker and Baxter’s lead, the Los Angeles Times printed a box on the bottom of its front page every day, featuring an out-of-context Sinclair quotation.
On October 1 Sinclair complained at a rally: “I don’t know what there is left for them [the Times] to bring up unless it is the nationalizing of women.” Two days later a Sinclair statement on cooperative child care appeared in the Times under the heading NATIONALIZING CHILDREN. Instead of presenting his program, Sinclair spent most of his time trying to correct what he called “a million lies.” He was discovering the wisdom in Mark Twain’s observation that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its boots.
To distract the candidate even further, the Republicans took another ground-breaking step. They hired Lord & Thomas, one of the first and most prominent national advertising firms, to direct an advertising struggle against Sinclair. Lord & Thomas had sold Lucky Strike cigarettes and Pepsodent toothpaste to the public; maybe, the GOP hoped, it could sell Frank Merriam as the answer to the Sinclair menace. Besides handling all the paid advertising—including the use of thousands of billboards to display twisted Sinclair quotations—Lord & Thomas may have had its own dirty-tricks squad. Sinclair charged that EPIC’s phones were tapped and some of its mail was stolen. “We hired the scum of the streets to carry placards: Vote for Upton Sinclair,” a Lord & Thomas manager later admitted.
The conscription of public relations agents and national advertising firms was an effective innovation for California Republicans. But the idea that had perhaps the greatest impact, both in the 1934 campaign and long afterward, was the manipulation of moving pictures. The Hollywood Reporter called this ploy “the most effective piece of political humdingery that has ever been effected.”
Extremely conservative to begin with, the Hollywood studio bosses were incensed when they heard of Sinclair’s plan to impose a special new tax on the film industry and to let out-of-work actors take over abandoned sound stages to make their own movies. The heads of several studios threatened to move their entire operations to Florida if EPIC became a reality. Joseph Schenck, the president of United Artists, went so far as to inspect sites in Florida. But when some of the studios began building new facilities in Hollywood, it became apparent that they were bluffing. If Hollywood meant to defeat Sinclair, the moguls would have to take more direct action.
And so, under the leadership of Louis B. Mayer, most of the studio bosses asked their employees, from stenographers to stars, to donate money to the Merriam campaign. Many workers feared that if they did not contribute, they risked losing their jobs. The levy generated half a million dollars for the anti-Sinclair campaign, an enormous sum for a statewide race in the 1930s. Several stars, including Katharine Hepburn, James Cagney, and Jean Harlow, rebelled. When the screenwriter Dorothy Parker spoke up for Sinclair, she was told, “You’re cutting your own throat.”
But Mayer and the movie establishment knew that to defeat Sinclair they would have to reach the masses beyond Hollywood with the message that he was a dangerous radical, and they would have to do it in a novel, exciting, and at the same time subtle way. Variety had issued a call: “With theatres available to provide Sinclair opposition, so far as propaganda is concerned, let the picture business assert itself.”
With only weeks remaining until the November election, an MGM director named Felix Feist, Jr., took a camera crew from Hearst Metrotone News (one of the leading newsreel companies of the day) up and down the state, filming interviews with prospective voters. Feist was following direct orders, it was later revealed, from MGM’s “boy wonder” producer Irving Thalberg. The raw film was processed through MGM’s lab, edited down to a few minutes, and added to the Metrotone newsreels, which were sent free of charge to theaters throughout California twice a week.
Louis B. Mayer and the movie establishment knew that to defeat Sinclair they would have to convey the message that he was a dangerous radical, and do it in a novel, exciting, yet subtle way.
Because newsreels had heretofore maintained a nonpartisan stance in election races, these shorts, based on an innocuous inquiring-reporter format, had an enormous effect. Well-dressed couples and prim, elderly ladies invariably endorsed Merriam. Disheveled, wild-eyed citizens with thick accents stood up for Sinclair. One man observed that Sinclair was “the author of the Russian government, and it worked out very well there, and it should do so here.”
Some of the interviews were legitimate; others were staged, using “bit” actors reading prepared scripts. The newsreels were just subtle enough to be effective. “Every screen fan in California,” The New Yorker later commented, “to prove that he was not a congenital idiot, was inclined to vote for Merriam.” Hard-core EPIC supporters, naturally, were angry. Outbursts in dozens of theaters forced some managers to stop showing the newsreels, “fearing wide-open terrorism,” according to Variety.
As a crowning blow, MGM, Fox, and possibly other studios produced newsreels showing an army of hoboes—or actors dressed in whiskers and rags—marching across California or arriving by rail, heading for the EPIC Utopia. A photograph showing the same migratory scene began appearing on the front pages of leading newspapers. Sharp-eyed readers identified the photo as a still from a recent movie, Wild Boys of the Road, provided to the newspapers by Warner Brothers.
There was more to the anti-Sinclair campaign. As much as ten million dollars may have been spent to defeat the EPIC candidate—a record for a state campaign that would stand for forty years. The funds were used to create front groups, print leaflets, and pay for countless newspaper ads and radio programs, all under the direction of Whitaker, Baxter, and Lord & Thomas. EPIC supporters were referred to as a “maggot-like horde.” Sinclair was called a “dynamiter of all churches,” and since he was often confused with Sinclair Lewis, he had to answer for Elmer Gantry as well.
As the campaign wound down, activities on both sides reached a fever pitch. There were now two thousand EPIC clubs, and the EPIC News ’s circulation had reached one and a half million. “A sense of Armageddon hangs in the bland California air,” The New York Times observed in the waning days of the race. Thousands of leaflets featuring a drawing of a bearded Russian waving a red flag over a map of California were distributed.
Considering the imaginative and unprecedented campaign waged against him, the wonder is not that Upton Sinclair lost but that he managed to draw nearly nine hundred thousand votes. Merriam’s total topped Sinclair’s by more than a quarter of a million, but EPIC candidates did win thirty seats in the state legislature.
After the 1934 election Sinclair retired from politics, wrote a book entitled I, Candidate for Governor and How I Got Licked, and returned to his calling as a novelist. The EPIC organization tried to carry on but was almost completely absorbed by the Democratic party. Yet Sinclair’s crusade had a lasting impact. EPIC made California a true two-party state for the first time and set the state’s Democrats on a liberal course that continues to this day. Several EPIC activists were later elected to Congress; they included Augustus Hawkins, who still sits in Washington, and Jerry Voorhis. Sinclair’s running mate, Sheridan Downey—the ticket was lampooned as “Uppie and Downey”—was sent to the U.S. Senate in 1938. (The young Richard Nixon ended Voorhis’s congresisional career in 1946 and then won a seat in the Senate in 1950 when Downey stepped down.) And Hollywood’s shameful performance during the Sinclair campaign galvanized support for the new Screen Writers Guild.
In 1938 Culbert Olson, a former EPIC candidate, was elected the first Democratic governor of California in almost forty years. His reform proposals, some based on EPIC ideas, were blocked by the GOP-led legislature, and four years later in his race for reelection, he was defeated by Earl Warren.
On a national level EPIC was almost equally influential. At the end of 1934 Harry Hopkins, soon to head the Works Progress Administration, proposed a program called End Poverty in America, which The New York Times said “differs from Mr. Sinclair’s in detail but I not in principle.” Sinclair’s big vote was one of several factors that convinced Roosevelt it was time to push for Social Security legislation. FDR also sent to Congress in 1935 a measure that embraced many EPIC proposals: a gift tax, graduated corporate and income taxes, and increased inheritance taxes. Sinclair’s call for state support of artists anticipated Roosevelt’s Federal Art Project.
The 1934 campaign’s contribution to the evolution of electoral activities in America overshadows all of this, however. After 1934, as Schlesinger has observed, “humdingery and dynamite” orchestrated by political consultants, public relations specialists, and advertising geniuses began flourishing in campaigns. The first overtly partisan newsreel, The March of Time, appeared in 1935, and it often used staged scenes to suit its political aims. The fake newsreels were the forerunners of paid political commercials on behalf of candidates. In the 1950s candidates started taking their cases to television. Many—perhaps most—political commercials do little more than stress candidates’ positive attributes or show them walking in parks with their families. But negative ads attacking opponents also appeared; the most famous was the 1964 commercial associating Barry Goldwater with a mushroom cloud and the end of the world. Television ads attacking incumbent Democrats, sponsored by political action committees, received a good deal of credit for helping the Republicans recapture control of the U.S. Senate in 1980.
The use of images on a screen to undermine an opponent can be seen today not only in electoral campaigns—almost all of this year’s presidential candidates ran negative ads at one time or another—but also in regard to legislative issues and judicial appointments. Negative TV ads, for example, unquestionably helped defeat Robert Bork’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The electronic media, not political parties, are now the principal mediators between politician and voter. Success in politics is increasingly dependent on access to the media. That access—whether free or paid—ultimately hinges on the work of hired forces from outside the political parties: fund raisers, political consultants, and public relations specialists.
All this now seems inevitable. But the 1934 campaign in California was a catalyst that showed politicians the route from the political clubhouse to Madison Avenue.