In the 1916 United States presidential election, President Woodrow Wilson barely defeated Charles Evans Hughes, the Republican candidate.

Wilson ran on the slogan 'He kept us out of war'. From what I have been able to find, this did assist his popularity some. (Hughes accused him of failing to make adequate preparations for war, which cemented his image as the antiwar candidate.) Most of his popularity (or, in certain quarters, unpopularity) revolved around questions of domestic reform, but being antiwar surely helped.

But the election result was astonishingly close. According to Wikipedia,

The key state proved to be California, which Wilson won by only 3,800 votes out of nearly a million cast. Although New Hampshire may not have been a deciding state in the election, the margin of victory for Wilson there was the second smallest ever recorded in an American presidential election at just 56 votes, behind Franklin Pierce's 25 vote victory in Delaware in 1852.[18][a] If Hughes had carried California and its thirteen electoral votes, he would have won the election.

On the face of it, that means the slogan was indeed needed; without it, Wilson wouldn't have had enough popularity to make the numbers by such a tiny margin.

However, it has been argued that things are not as they seem; that the Californians who were antiwar, primarily labor, were Wilson supporters anyway, and would have voted for him regardless of that slogan; that it made no difference in the end. And there does seem to be some evidence that labor was the group most strongly opposed to joining the war, e.g. Preparedness Day Bombing

Isolationism remained strong in San Francisco, not only among radicals such as the Industrial Workers of the World ("the Wobblies"), but also among mainstream labor leaders. At the same time, with the rise of Bolshevism and labor unrest, San Francisco's business community was nervous. The Chamber of Commerce organized a Law and Order Committee, despite the diminishing influence and political clout of local labor organizations.[citation needed] The Preparedness Day Parade was organized by the Chamber of Commerce and the anti-union conservative business establishment.

Was there strong antiwar sentiment among other sections of California society?

Were there any states other than California and New Hampshire in which the result was close enough that prevailing antiwar sentiment might have made the difference?

1 Answer 1


Wilson's election was about a generation before scientific polling, so we don't and probably can't ever really know that.

However, it was a fact that he ran hard on that issue. Its also a fact that, knowing that he was running on that platform, the electorate voted for Wilson in 30 of 48 states. So it seems reasonable under the circumstances to consider that position the mandate of the American people at the time.

Where it gets a bit iffy is that if this were indeed a mandate, it wasn't much of one. In fact, Wilson did not receive a majority of the popular vote, and only won that by about 3%. 46.1% of the voters actually, knowing that was his main platform, voted against Wilson. So it would also be fair to consider that a very weak mandate.

The other thing that makes for a strong mandate is an unusually large electorate. The theory there is that if more voters care about the issues under contention, the winning issues have that many more voters behind them. Here, the data is a bit mixed. There were about 3 million more voters in 1916 than in 1912, but there were about 8 million more voters in 1920 than in 1916. The population of the country was of course growing at the time, so 3 million increase in voters looks more like treading water. So it doesn't appear to have been an unusually high-interest election.

So it would probably be fair to say that Wilson was elected with a weak mandate on his "America First/Kept us out of the War" platform for 1916. But it was a bare mandate, without even a majority, so it seems reasonable for him to change that position later as new events occurred.

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    Interesting answer. In broad terms I agree—but it might be possible to understand what the Californian and New Hampshire populations thought about Wilson vs Hughes by seeing which parties' candidates they supported for the Senate and the House. So, if they all voted for candidates who were at least nominally isolationist, that would indicate there would be a bigger support for that policy, while if they voted for pro-war members and yet elected Wilson, it would be Wilson's other issued that were instrumental. Not an amazing deduction, admittedly, but perhaps worthwhile?
    – gktscrk
    Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 21:05
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    @Lucian - I put the word "probably" in there just for optimists such as yourself.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 22:45
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    I think there's a different explanation for the increased number of voters in 1920.
    – Tiercelet
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 14:22
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    If Wilson didn't receive a majority of the popular vote, shouldn't the percentage of voters who voted against him be greater than 50%? Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 15:38
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    @James_pic - The problem is the whole "voted against" framing falls apart once you involve more than two candidates. Its quite possible (even plausible) those 3.2% of socialist voters were in full agreement with Wilson's platform, and even liked the guy, but preferred their candidate. The Prohibition party voters were pretty clearly single-issue voters, and I don't think we have any information about how they felt about the war issue.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 18:40

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