Harding's emergence in 1920 as a presidential possibility resulted from a confluence of disparate events. First, as a senator and favorite son from Ohio, "the Mother of Presidents," he automatically was a factor in any presidential equation. Second, continuing acrimony in the Republican party encouraged constant speculation about a compromise candidate. Third, the inability of the major contenders in 1920 to outstrip one another in garnering a majority of the eligible delegates played into the hands of the dark horse. Finally, Harding's cause was pushed by a dedicated and skillful group of supporters, the foremost being Harry Micajah Daugherty.
Daugherty, a Washington Court House, Ohio, political manipulator and lobbyist, had known Harding since the turn of the century, but it was not until after Harding had become senator that their friendship deepened. Sizing up the confused political situation in 1919–1920, Daugherty strongly urged Harding to enter the race and ignored his first negative responses. Contrary to later popular myth, neither Harding nor his wife sought the presidency, and even after Harding was swept along by the enthusiasm of his friends, Florence Harding remained opposed to his running. Although Daugherty later exaggerated his own role in the final decision—"I found him sunning himself, like a turtle on a log, and I pushed him into the water," he once bragged—Daugherty's insistence, along with the favorable circumstances and Harding's own belated ambition, did finally make him an active contender.
Even so, Harding's nomination required considerable luck. Later, when asked by reporters how he would describe his success in capturing the nomination, Harding replied, "We drew to a pair of deuces, and filled." There was much truth in this statement, since only a continued deadlock between front-runners Frank O. Lowden and General Leonard Wood at the convention itself kept open the way for an alternative. That possibility had already prompted Daugherty, who was running Harding's campaign headquarters, to woo both sides assiduously and to prophesy:
When both realize they can't win, when they're hot and sweaty and discouraged, [they] will remember me and this little headquarters. They'll be like soldiers after a battle, who recall a shady spring along a country road, where they got a drink as they marched to the front. When they remember me that way, maybe both sides will turn to Harding.
Some four months before, Daugherty had made another prophetic statement that, in view of the Friday night activities at the convention (the height of the Lowden-Wood deadlock), gave birth to the smoke-filled-room myth. Said Daugherty:
I don't expect Senator Harding to be nominated on the first, second or third ballot, but I think we can well afford to take chances that about eleven minutes after 2 o'clock on Friday morning at the convention, when fifteen or twenty men, somewhat weary, are sitting around a table, some one of them will say, "Who will we nominate?" At that decisive time the friends of Senator Harding can suggest him and can afford to abide by the result.
Such a meeting was in fact held on Friday night, 11 June 1920, in a hotel suite rented by the Republican party chairman, Will Hays, and attended by a circulating group of party leaders at which various alternatives to Wood and Lowden were discussed. Among those suggested was Warren Harding, although, contrary to some later accounts, this loosely formed and ever-changing meeting broke up before a consensus was reached. Representing neither a cabal nor a formal gathering, these Friday night discussions did set the stage for the continuation of a search for a solution on the floor of the convention on Saturday morning, which finally resulted in the nomination of the Ohioan on the tenth ballot. Given the circumstances, Harding's selection was no fluke. From the Friday deadlock on, he had emerged as the most available candidate.
Despite caveats in some quarters as to the wisdom of the convention's choice, it was generally agreed that Harding would make a strong candidate. With him on the ticket was Governor Calvin Coolidge of Massachusetts, who had gained widespread fame for his antiradical stand during the Boston police strike the year before.
Opposing Harding for the Democrats was another newspaper editor, James M. Cox, publisher of the Dayton Daily News and then governor of Ohio. Cox's running mate was the thirty-eight-year-old assistant secretary of the navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a New Yorker. Hampered by certain aggressive personality characteristics and by President Wilson's insistence that the campaign be a "great and solemn referendum" on the League, Cox failed to strike sparks with the public. War-to-peace conversion traumas, the soaring cost of living, widespread labor unrest, alleged radical subversion, and a threatening postwar recession also combined to promote a public desire for change.
Harding capitalized on all of these factors and ran an able campaign. Under the tutelage of Daugherty and other party advisers, he eschewed the temptation to tour the country "bloviating," as he described his free style of speechmaking. Instead, he stayed at home in Marion, reading carefully prepared speeches from his front porch to delegations that came to visit him from across the country. Contrary to some later assertions, Harding was the dominant figure in this campaign, making his own pronouncements, which often were specifically tailored to particular delegations. And the whole tone of the campaign was also distinctly his. The emphasis on pacification, on conciliation, on restoration, and on harmony was not characteristic of most of the aggressively anti-Wilson leaders of his party. Harding said, "America's present need is not heroics but healing, not nostrums but normalcy"—words that the public apparently wanted to hear in the 1920 campaign.
At least that is what the election returns showed on 2 November. It was an astonishing victory, and newspaper headlines groped for superlatives. Whether a result of Harding's own performance or a reaction against Wilsonism, the 16,181,289 votes for Harding, in contrast to the 9,141,750 votes for Cox, represented a resounding mandate. After savoring this victory for a month while on vacation in Texas and Panama, Harding returned to Marion in December to begin the task of selecting his official family. Great time and care were devoted to this job. Calling Marion "the Great Listening Post," Harding sought advice from all quarters and elicited suggestions from all factions. Even leading Democrats were requested by Harding to offer advice.