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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Elections To Remember: California, 1934

Some elections are amazing. Some are intense. Some are mind-boggling.

And some are simply forgotten.

Please join me in remembering a few of these elections every week. I promise that it’ll be amazing, intense, and mind-boggling…or your money back.

Ah, muck (no typo). What a year 1934 turned out to be. For Socialism, that is.

Three Socialist candidates ran for national office–the US Senate–in the 1934 elections at the midpoint of Democrat Franklin Roosevelt’s first term: George Kirkpatrick in California, who lost with 5.3% of the vote; W.C. Meyer in Missouri, who lost with 0.7% of the vote; and Norman Thomas in New York, losing with 5.3% of the vote. None of these candidates were able to mount serious opposition to their chief opponent.

One election that year, however, was a hot one. And of course, it would happen in California.

Republican Lieutenant Governor Frank Merriam assumed the governorship upon the death of his boss, James Rolph, from heart failure on June 2, 1934. Almost immediately, Merriam was forced to begin campaigning for the gubernatorial election in 1934 and won the Republican nomination for governor against Los Angeles lawyer Raymond Haight.

Haight helped to make the election a lot closer than it needed to be–thus, scaring the crap out of conservatives (and even centrists) in California. Rather than fade away into obscurity, Haight formed his own party–the Commonwealth-Progressive Party–and ran for governor anyway (that’s back when “progressive” still meant you were a Republican).

The Democratic side, however, proved to be much more interesting. In response to the growing depression gripping the country, the party nomination was won by “former” Socialist Upton Sinclair. Yes, that’s the same Upton Sinclair that raked up the muck with such books as The Jungle and They Call Me Carpenter. The tag “former” socialist was no joke–Sinclair famously created a commune–“Helicon Home Colony” in New Jersey–with the royalties from his muckraking success. After an unsuccessful run for Congress in New Jersey (Sinclair ran and lost on the Socialist ticket with only 3% of the vote), Helicon was heavily damaged in an arson fire. After a few moves, Sinclair ended up in Monrovia, California and was met with more political defeats as a candidate for Senate and the House on the Socialist ticket.

Sometimes, successful authors do not cross over well to successful public figures. While you can argue about Sinclair’s successfulness, his ability to understand and craft the political process was near-legendary. In each of his previous losses, Sinclair had run as a socialist and was summarily written off for that title. Fear of anything red or communist meant little support for the ultra-left side.

However, in 1934, Sinclair didn’t run as a socialist–in fact, he didn’t even want to talk about socialism. He ran under the banner of “EPIC,” which meant “End Poverty in California.” His auspicious plan called for ending unemployment, effectively putting over half a million Californians back to work. His method mirrored very closely the socialist method and system of communes that he had backed his whole life and attempted to implement in New Jersey in the early 1900s. Except one thing was now different: he didn’t specifically declare it as socialist.

But, it appears, many others did. Frank Merriam made the 1934 race famous by using motion pictures for the first time to “go on the negative” and attack Sinclair. His “Stop Sinclair” movement enlisted the support of William Randolph Hearst Jr. to write attack ads on Sinclair, and also of MGM head Louis Mayer who produced fake newsreels showing Soviets coming over to California to vote for Sinclair. Many critics call this campaign the first “modern campaign” in US history for its use of the mass media to defeat a particular candidate. All told, Merriam and his associates would spend a whopping $10 million (that’s in 1934 money) to defeat Sinclair–equivalent to nearly $155 million today. Simply amazing–and all that, to defeat a socialist.

In the final analysis, Merriam won the election–but not with a majority of the votes. He defeated Sinclair 48.8-37.7, with spoiler Haight receiving 13%. Since much of Haight’s support came from SoCal farmers (and Democrats) who weren’t too thrilled with Sinclair’s EPIC plan, a reasonable argument stands to be made that the only thing that saved California from Socialism in 1934 was Raymond L. Haight. Still, Sinclair managed to secure nearly 850,000 votes…a truly amazing feat for a man who hadn’t managed even close to one-tenth of that in previous candidacies. Even more amazing for a known socialist to come “thisclose” to statewide office of one of the most prominent states in America.

Of his run for Governor, Sinclair would later reflect, “The American People will take Socialism, but they won’t take the label. I certainly proved it in the case of EPIC. Running on the Socialist ticket I got 60,000 votes, and running on the slogan to ‘End Poverty in California’ I got 879,000. I think we simply have to recognize the fact that our enemies have succeeded in spreading the Big Lie. There is no use attacking it by a front attack, it is much better to out-flank them.”

And if that wouldn’t make a good movie, I don’t know what will.

Please join the journeying progressive at For Which It Stands for thoughts, musings, and an insatiable quest for knowledge.


  1. Step 1–get Barack Obama elected

    Step 2–beat up all bad guys

    Step 3–crack open a Sam Adams

    I’m currently embroiled in Step 2, but if anyone would like to donate to my “Step 3 Fund” please go here and contribute. 🙂 Thanks to all, and to all a buenos noches.

  2. Hollede

    and I think that you and Sinclair are absolutely correct. I can talk to just about anyone around here (very conservative place) and we agree on almost every socialist idea that is discussed. Once you name it tho, all hope for sensible conversation evaporates.

    Thank you for posting this at MM.

  3. Not that I feel I have to put a disclaimer up, but I’m not specifically advocating for socialism in this one. I’m just pointing out the dichotomy between what people actually believe and what they think they believe. That, and it’s amazing how a socialist was almost elected to a pretty powerful office!

    I write this piece to highlight the “forgotten elections,” or elections that are so intense that we should probably relive them on a regular basis as a reminder. I did want to name it “Elections To Make a Movie Out Of,” but I thought that sounded kind of awkward. Hopefully somebody will still make a movie out of them. 🙂

    Please join the journeying progressive at For Which It Stands for thoughts, musings, and an insatiable quest for knowledge.

  4. for the next 4-8 years. Whenever the government tries to implement a policy that will help the working class or middle class, the Republicans will start hollering, “socialism.” They’ve already made clear what they are going to do. The label came up frequently near the end of the campaign. It is also part of the controversy over helping the auto industry. According to Paul Krugman in the NY Times, there is an email circulating among Republicans that set it up as a chance to hurt organized labor.

    Why was the plan blocked? An e-mail message circulated among Senate Republicans declared that denying the auto industry a loan was an opportunity for Republicans to “take their first shot against organized labor.”

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