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The Rollicking Presidential Election of 1912

Updated on April 26, 2012

It's election season again in America, and despite the thrills and chills that we've seen thus far, with campaigns starting and stopping and fizzling, one thing is virtually certain. The election of 2012 won't be anything like the one that took place precisely one hundred years prior, which was wild and wooly -- not to mention bully.

The Incumbent:  President William Howard Taft
The Incumbent: President William Howard Taft

"Big Bill" Tries Another Bite at the Apple

Like 2012, the year 1912 saw an incumbent in the White House seeking reelection. This president, though, was a Republican and his name was William Howard Taft. Perhaps best known for his girth (he weighed over 300 pounds at the time) and for his love of golf, Taft had not wanted to be president originally. His lifelong ambition had been to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court -- a post which he eventually got. But he got diverted from that career path by, among other things, accepting a position as Secretary of War to the previous President, Republican Theodore Roosevelt. By 1908 TR, having been in office for seven years, was eager to groom a successor and thought that the man who could best fit the bill was -- well, Bill. Taft's wife Helen also had presidential aspirations for him. Between her and TR, they persuaded Taft to run, which he did, thwarting Democrat William Jennings Bryan's third attempt at the White House by carrying 29 out of 46 states.

Though Taft was not nearly as inspiring as the charismatic Roosevelt, he clearly was meant to be a protégé of him and in some ways he was. He turned out to be an even bigger trustbuster than his predecessor -- a fact that angered Roosevelt, whose trustbusting activities had been a little more discriminating. That, plus some other decisions by Taft that Roosevelt regarded as betrayals, such as the firing of conservationist Gifford Pinchot, motivated Roosevelt to come back in and try and unseat Taft in 1912.

This was the first year that presidential primaries played a role, and Roosevelt won most of those contests. Taft, however, had the delegations sewn up in the states that didn't hold primaries. By the time the Republicans met in Chicago in June, the forces were deadlocked. Taft eventually prevailed and became the Republican nominee, with his Vice President, James Schoolcraft Sherman, serving once again as his running mate.


New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson
New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson

The Democrats Nominate a Ph.D.

A week after the Republicans finished their convention, the Democrats met in Baltimore, and for a long time it looked as though the Speaker of the House, Representative Champ Clark of Missouri, would be their nominee. He had a strong start, picking up enough strength to gain more than 50 percent of the vote by the tenth ballot. The nomination, however, required a two-thirds majority of the delegates.

Contending against Clark was Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey, a Ph.D. holder who had been a professor and had briefly served as president of Princeton University. Also in the mix were Representative Oscar Underwood of Alabama, Governor Thomas Reilly Marshall of Indiana, and two others.

For ballot after ballot, Clark struggled to gain traction, but he just didn't have the votes. Wilson passed him on the thirtieth ballot, but he didn't have enough votes to clear the two-thirds threshold either. It was only after Underwood withdrew, prior to the forty-second ballot, that Wilson was able to secure the nomination.

Former President Theodore Roosevelt
Former President Theodore Roosevelt

A New Party Is Born

Roosevelt, meanwhile, was still smarting over his rejection at the Republican convention and was determined to do something about it. There now seemed enough people who saw things his way that he was able to launch a new party, the Progressives, and they held a convention in Chicago in August. True, some progressively-minded individuals were now siding with Democratic nominee Wilson, but by the time the three-day convention got started, the Progressives had assembled over 2,000 delegates, many of whom were women. In fact women's suffrage became a plank of the party platform. Roosevelt received the nomination by acclamation and chose as his running mate Governor Hiram Johnson of California. That, coupled with the fact that the Socialist Party had nominated Eugene V. Debs in May, made the election of 1912 a four-way split.


The Campaigns Heat Up

Roosevelt's entry into the race clearly spelled trouble for Taft. The President knew the election was as good as Wilson's, and as a result he didn't campaign very hard, even though some of the issues were hot. Income tax, direct election of senators, and suffrage for women all appeared on party platforms. Taft gave a few speeches, but didn't really hit the campaign trail until late in the game. When he did travel, it was often to play golf.

Wilson, meanwhile, was now wondering how to distinguish himself from Roosevelt. Talking with a friend, Louis Brandeis who was then simply a lawyer, Wilson decided that one way to appear even more progressive than Roosevelt was to sound the drum of competition -- a Wilson administration would not only go after monopolies but would encourage competition wherever possible. Wilson wasn't quite sure how he would do this, but it certainly sounded good.

Roosevelt had perhaps the most vigorous campaign. He opened in Providence, Rhode Island, then stormed west and then stormed south, trying to pick up as many votes as he could. On October 14th, while preparing to give a speech in Milwaukee, Roosevelt was shot by a saloonkeeper named Joseph Schrank, who had been stalking him. The bullet penetrated a fifty-page speech and an eyeglass case that Roosevelt had in his coat pocket before it lodged in his chest. (You can see pages of the bullet-ridden speech today, at Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site in New York City.) Ever the proponent of the strenuous life, even though he knew he had been hit, Roosevelt took a calculated gamble that the wound was not fatal and proceeded to give the speech anyway, forgoing medical attention until afterward. "It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose," he said. He eventually did go to the hospital, though, and his campaign was suspended for two weeks while he recovered. Taft and Wilson suspended their campaigns as well.

Roosevelt might have fared all right, but Taft didn't. The week before the election, incumbent Vice President Sherman died unexpectedly, leaving Taft scrambling for another running mate. He settled on Nicholas Butler to fill Sherman's seat.

When the election was held in November, Taft came in a distant third, with a mere eight electoral votes (from Utah and Vermont) -- the worst showing of an incumbent in American presidential history. Had the Republican party not been split, Taft (or Roosevelt) might very well have won the election. In addition to Taft's two states and Roosevelt's six (which included California), the Republicans most likely would have picked up twenty-five more states and could have won with as few as sixteen. Instead the split handed the keys of the White House to Dr. Wilson.

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    • teutophile profile image
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      teutophile 5 years ago

      Great question, Alastar. Some of the more interesting side questions: Would TR have gotten us into the Great War earlier? And would he have had the desire (and been in sufficiently good health) to run again in 1916, making him the first 4-term Roosevelt?

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

      Excellent article on the 1912 election candidates teutophile. Always wandered how history would have gone if TR's Bull Moose party had won.