The differences between the candidates were sometimes ideological, as in the distinction between Warren Harding and Theodore Roosevelt, but sometimes the contrast was one of style, as in the contrast between Harding and Calvin Coolidge. In terms of policy, Harding and Coolidge were nearly indistinguishable, but in terms of oratory, Harding bested Coolidge in his ability to move crowds.
Harding interested the voters by speaking of an end to experimentation. Wilson’s administration was perpetually tinkering with the economy, with education, and with other policy topics. The voters were annoyed by regulation and by constant changes in regulation. Historian Amity Shlaes recounts a pivotal speech which brought Harding closer to the nomination:
Before a crowd of 100,000 Harding then gave his speech, far grander and more ambitious than Coolidge’s and of high quality. America must not expect too much or experiment too much, he said. He warned against change for its own sake. “No altered system will work a miracle,” he said. “Any wild experiment will only add to the confusion. Our best assurance lies in efficient administration of our proven system.” Harding might pursue some items on the progressive agenda. But he sought no Square Deal, such as Theodore Roosevelt had offered. What this administration wanted was to find its way back to the Old Deal.
After several ballots, the Republican Party nominated Harding. The 1920 election was a landslide. The other party got only 34% of the popular vote, and the only states it carried were the states of the old Confederacy. Civil War sentiments were still in play. A majority of African-American voters in the states of the deep South chose Harding, but the local governments there were in the hands of the Democrats, who kept many Black voters away from the polls, and refused to count some of the votes of those who did cast a ballot.
Harding would repay the electorate’s trust by deregulating markets, cutting taxes, cutting federal spending, and paying down the national debt. The result was a thriving economy, benefiting citizens at all income levels, low or high. Harding also worked to counteract Woodrow Wilson’s racist policies. Unlike Wilson, Harding was in favor of anti-lynching laws. The children of former slaves, the African-American voters of the deep South, had an effective ally in Warren G. Harding.