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Food Prices, Politics, and Policy in the Progressive Era1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 November 2010

David I. Macleod
Central Michigan University

Abstract prices surged abruptly higher in 1910–1913, alarming urban consumers, who equated them with the high cost of living, but delighting farmers. Progressive reformers tackled detailed aspects of the food-price problem but had no overarching solution and no effective programs t o please both consumers and farmers. A volatile pattern of economic voting resulted, but unlike conventional models, it had countervailing tendencies, setting consumers against food producers. Food prices cost the Republicans heavily in the 1910 election and helped disrupt the party by 1912, ending the Republican “system of 1896.” In power, Democrats pursued primarily a southern-tinged agrarian agenda and narrowly preserved power through 1914 and 1916 but fell victim to interest-group conflicts in 1918 and economic disasters in 1920.

Copyright © Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2009

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50 This approach differs from most voting studies that either compare enduring loyalties (regional, ethnic, religious, etc.) or treat each national election as one case in a series of elections. In either instance, one might expect to find a larger proportion of variance explained.

51 There are advantages and disadvantages in using counties rather than congressional districts as units for analysis. In settled states, county boundaries tended to remain stable, whereas redistricting periodically changed district boundaries, as happened between the 1910 and 1912 elections. Census data were reported by county, whereas assembling data for congressional districts that included only part of a county or more than one county requires some estimation and recalculation of census data. Also, county data separate, at least approximately, rural and urban portions of some mixed districts. On the other hand, if one thinks in terms of total vote or numbers of representatives elected, using counties overweighs the number of cases toward small rural counties. Urban counties typically had far more congressional representation per county. This does not matter when comparing different tendencies within the vote, in this case urban versus rural, but it weakens the results as an explanation of overall election results, where winning districts mattered. One must remember that urban and nonfarm shifts outweighed rural shifts within the regions outside the South where the elections under consideration were decided. On the other hand, the farm vote remained too large to be ignored by politicians seeking to build broad coalitions.

52 The dependent variables were the difference between the Republican percentage of a county's vote for Congress in 1910 and the same percentage in 1908 (1,764 counties) and the same difference for the Democrats (1,754 counties). Results were significant beyond the.0001 level except the r of.090, significant at the.0002 level. I omitted the eleven former Confederate states. Clubb, Jerome M., Flanigan, William H., and Zingale, Nancy H., Electoral Datafor Counties in the United States: Presidential and Congressional Races, 1840–1972 (Ann Arbor, MI, 1986)Google Scholar [computer file]; Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, Historical, Demographic, Economic, and Social Data: The United States, 1790–1970 (Ann Arbor, MI, 1992) [computerfile, update]Google Scholar.

53 Republican results (613 counties) were statistically significant beyond the.0015 level, Democratic results only at the.026 level (612 counties).

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59 Wilson's body mass index was 23·5, compared to 30·2 for Roosevelt and 42·3 for Taft; see “The Presidents by Height and BMI” <∼sharonday7/Presidents/ AP060303.htm> (accessed Nov. 30, 2004).

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62 Carter, , ed., Historical Statistics, 5:201.Google Scholar See note 52 for sources. Significance levels beyond.0001 and n = 1785.

63 Republican significance levels were beyond.01, Democratic just beyond.05.

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67 New York Times, Sept. 29, 1913.

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69 Woodrow Wilson to James C. McReynolds, Aug. 13,1914, and clipping, Washington Evening Star, Aug. 24, 1914, both in Wilson Papers, case file 60; New York Times, Aug.-Oct., 1914.

70 New York Times, Dec. 28, 1913; “General Summary of Contributions on the Meat Situation,” Feb. 21, 1916, RG 16, box 296, NA.

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73 Tom G. Hall, “Wilson and the Food Crisis: Agricultural Price Control during World War I,” Agricultural History 47 (jan. 1973): 32–34; David Houston to J. P. Tumulty, Jan. 21, 1915; “No Shortage of Foodstuffs Likely,” Feb. 17, 1915, RG 16, both in box 202, NA.

744 Bureau of Labor Statistics food index (1913 = 100): Aug. 1914,107; Nov. 1914, 105; Feb. 1915, 101; May 1915, 100; Aug. 1915, 100; Nov. 1915, 104; Feb. 1916, 106; May 1916, 109; Aug. 1916, 113; Nov. 1916, 126. National Industrial Conference Board, Cost of Living, 3.

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