The Willkie Buttons: The use of Campaign Buttons during the 1940 Presidential Election
During the 1940 Presidential election, the Republican Party nominated lawyer and corporate executive, Wendell Willkie, as their nominee for President. Willkie, who had no prior experience in politics, was seen as a surprising choice for receiving the nominee. Willkie’s opponent, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had already been President for two-terms by this point and seemed likely to achieve it once again. Though it would prove to be an uphill battle, Willkie’s campaign remained formidable throughout as a result of their aggressive merchandising tactics. Specifically, Willkie’s use of buttons to demonstrate his points and ideas proved immensely popular. Indeed, Willkie’s extensive use of buttons during his campaign was unprecedented at the time, and would mark a change in the ways that campaigns would spread their message going forward.
An Unlikely Candidate
Willkie’s nomination came as a surprising development during the election season. Willkie’s lack of experience proved to be a divisive issue amongst voters. His opponent, however, was not without controversy either. Come the 1940 election, Roosevelt had now officially served almost two-terms in office. Though there was no policy at the time that forbid a third-term in office, it was considered un-traditional to seek more than the standard eight years in power. Roosevelt, however, argued that it was his duty to continue to serve in order to lead the country through the rising crisis in Europe, where the threat of Nazi Germany was escalating. Willkie’s campaign largely rested on opposition to Roosevelt seeking another term in office, as well as his New Deal programs, a series of economic and financial policies and reforms that were created in response to the Great Depression.
Buttons for every Issue
The Willkie Campaign released numerous buttons that attacked President Roosevelt on any issue that might prove detrimental to his campaign. These buttons not only attacked Roosevelt but his family as well. One example comes from a controversy surrounding Roosevelt’s son, Elliot. Elliot, who had enlisted in the United States Air Corps was quickly given the rank of Captain, bypassing the standard procedure necessary for receiving the title. When the story became public, Willkie and his supporters distributed buttons that read “I Wanna be a Captain too” as an attack on Roosevelt and the perceived special treatment that his family was receiving. Another example pertains to the Willkie campaigns attack on the President’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt. The First Lady was an active participant in her husband’s administration, giving press conferences and speaking out on issues, such as human rights, racial discrimination, and women’s rights. The First Ladies active role in the administration was ridiculed by many. Willkie supporters attacked both the President and the First Lady for seeking another four years in office. Willkie’s use of buttons warranted democrats to put out their own button that said “All you get from Willkie are buttons.”
The Bold Merchandising Campaign
The Willkie campaign promoted itself on several items, including neckties, chewing gum, and cowbells. Yet the buttons were always the principal means of selling Willkie as the better candidate. The flurry of buttons to come out of a single campaign was unheard of at the time of the election. Campaign buttons had only traditionally come out right before a campaign. Willkie had buttons released from the start, vastly outmatching Roosevelt’s button operation. According to a September 1940 issue of Life, the campaign season of 1940 was responsible for the production of roughly thirty million buttons, most of which are thought to be in support of Willkie. Many Willkie supporters, affectionately known as Willkiettes, often distributed buttons in many areas throughout the country. The magazine declared that the campaign was the showiest affair in more than one hundred years.
The Election Results
Despite their best efforts, the Willkie Campaigns merchandising efforts were not enough to secure Willkie the presidency. Willkie would end up losing the popular vote with 54.74% of the vote going towards Roosevelt while Willkie himself secured 44.78% of the votes. The electoral college was also not in his favor, with 449 votes for Roosevelt and 82 for Willkie. Despite having lost the election, Willkie, to the surprise of many in his party became an unlikely ally to the President. Between 1941 and 1943, Willkie served as the President’s informal envoy by embarking on numerous trips abroad. Willkie would return to campaign once again in the 1944 election, though was forced to abandon it upon suffering a series of heart attacks. Willkie would finally succumb to a heart attack and died in that same year at the age of fifty-two.
The 1940 election is considered to be one of the greatest spectacles to have ever graced American politics. Though Willkie did not succeed in achieving the presidency, his campaign tactics proved to be effective in spreading his message in new ways. The Willkie Campaigns use of buttons to attack Roosevelt’s aspirations for a third term were perhaps instrumental to a degree in the passing of 22nd Amendment, which limited presidents to only two terms in office. As a result, Roosevelt is the first and only president to have ever served more than two terms. Buttons, in particular, were seen more than ever as efficient tools in spreading awareness to a greater number of people. The 1940 election would change how political campaigns were marketed, while also changing the way that buttons were incorporated into campaign culture.
To see all of the Button Museum's Willkie related buttons: http://buttonmuseum.org/search/node/willkie
All pictures are from the September 1940 issue of Life Magazine
Hamburger, P., & Maloney, R. (1940, August 31). The Talk of the Town: Willkie Buttons. The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1940/08/31/willkie-buttons
The Challenge-M'Nary to Willkie (August 30, 1940). The Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.noctrl.edu/docview/176515947/8CBC35...
Willkie is way ahead in Battle of Buttons. (1940, September 30). Life. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=C0oEAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA82&dq=willkie%20but...
Ross, Hugh. (1962, June) Was the Nomination of Wendell Willkie a Political Miracle? Indiana Magazine of History. Vol. 58. No. 2 Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27788982?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
Edwards, P. (2015, October 9). Today’s presidential campaigns are fought on Twitter. In 1940, they used… buttons. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2015/10/9/9486799/willkie-buttons
Research and text by Adam Prestigiacomo