Having read a biography about the life of 26th American president Theodore Roosevelt I became incredibly interested in the 1912 presidential election. Despite Roosevelt himself losing it provides a useful example of an influential third-party – a rarity in U.S. elections – proving to be very decisive. This theme of a third-party can be found in earlier American election posts on this blog, notably Lincoln’s win in 1860 – which was a factor in the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 – and Nixon’s 1968 election win.
Firstly, a short contextual overview will be of use in understanding the key reasons for the eventual result in the 1912 election. Previously, Theodore Roosevelt (popularly referred to as “TR”) had served as president of the United States from 1901-1909, having succeeded to the presidency on the death of McKinley (through assassination) in 1901. During these two terms Roosevelt impressed himself on the office of the presidency, through attempts at domestic reform and in foreign affairs.
Roosevelt has been hailed by many for his stated aim at obtaining a ‘Square Deal’ for the American people. This linked to the wider progressive movement in the United States during this period, with TR taking on the power of large corporations that had become fattened on gains during the Gilded Age in order to provide greater security for the average American. He has been provided with the epithet of ‘trustbuster’, however, as Michael P. Riccards notes, Roosevelt’s intentions may have had more to do with stressing federal power.
It is in foreign affairs in which Roosevelt truly made his mark, highlighting an acceleration in the power of the United States on the world stage. He engaged in diplomacy, notably helping broker the peace between the Japanese and the Russians (for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize), and in building the ‘Great White Fleet’ which sailed the globe. Of more lasting importance was the strategic acquisition and building of the Panama Canal. In many ways, such events continued the earlier trend of McKinley’s presidency; after all, it was Roosevelt’s predecessor who oversaw victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Hugh Brogan considers this war to have been the ‘turning point’ in American imperial aspirations, and TR continued in the same vein. However, when evaluating Roosevelt’s presidency as a whole, many historians and political scientists stress a clear change: from the president acting as a ceremonial figurehead to a more vociferous, directing executive. This later description is how many people would today describe the office, however, this was rarely the case prior to the arrival of Theodore Roosevelt (with a few, notable exceptions, of course).
Roosevelt took the decision to step down after the second term and did not attempt to run in the 1908 presidential election. Of course, in the modern day the most that any president can serve is two terms, however, this was only enshrined in law with the post-WW2 Twenty-Second Amendment. Prior to this it was deemed a polite convention started by George Washington himself for a president to only serve two terms (something in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt, TR’s distant cousin, clearly did not abide by with his four election wins!). So, Roosevelt stepped down and went on safari, whilst leaving the Republican party in the hands of his anointed successor: William Taft. Taft won the 1908 election, which continued a two decade winning streak for the Republicans.
TR had planned to be physically away from the presidency and its debates during Taft’s term, however, after spending a year away on safari and travelling Europe, he returned to the States and the two men began clashing. There appears to have been a personality difference but the most serious divide was in their political outlook: Roosevelt saw the presidency as a platform to exert American imperial powers and to make changes for all Americans, particularly within the guise of the progressive movement. However, Taft was a more traditional conservative: he believed that the office of president should not be as aggressive or loud, preferring to rest his own ideology on the Constitution itself. No doubt Taft’s outlook was cemented through his education in the law – and Taft later became chief justice of the Supreme Court, the only president to have also held such a post – whereas TR wanted to bring more of his personality to the presidency.
By 1912 it was clear that Roosevelt sought the nomination of the Republicans in order to fight the election later in the year. However, Taft was determined to not bow down. Ultimately, the convention and the party was split between the two leaders and their two ideological positions, although the nomination was confirmed for Taft. As in other decisive third-party elections, rather than accept defeat Roosevelt continued forward with his ambition to become president. He also cited allegations of fixing, which hold a certain ring in the modern day after the 2020 presidential election. This led to the formation of a new party: the Progressive Party, which was accorded the nickname the Bull Moose Party due to Roosevelt claiming that he was “fit as a bull moose.”
This new party is an interesting one, principally for its platform and the profile of its supporters. It has been seen as ‘a collection of social workers, reformers, and progressive idealists’ who wanted to increase democratic engagement (in terms of more direct democracy and providing women with the vote), as well as a host of other social welfare reforms.However, the two parties competed for different sections of the Republican vote; this split the party and allowed the Democrats – who had been out of the White House for twenty years – to seize the initiative.
The Democrat nominee was Woodrow Wilson. In many ways Wilson could be portrayed as the opposite of Roosevelt: more reserved and far more puritanical. Wilson would later become an incredibly influential two-term president, particularly due to its involvement in the First World War and the Versailles peace treaty, however, there was not much to highlight this in 1912. But he managed to take advantage of the Republican split in order to campaign confidently. Furthermore, he stood as a campaigner for progressive values: this stole the thunder from Roosevelt’s own manifesto points (something that TR himself realised at the time, which massively dented his chances of winning the election).
The campaign itself is an interesting one: on 14th October 1912, Roosevelt was shot from a deranged assassin. The bullet became lodged in his chest but yet did not penetrate any organs; many believe the strength of the bullet was thwarted by hitting the glasses’ case and folded up speech that were located in Roosevelt’s chest pocket. Also – further highlighting TR’s character – after being shot he delivered a 90 minute speech before then seeking firm medical support. Campaigning was suspended for two weeks whilst Roosevelt was back on the campaign trail, however, a week before the election the running mate of Taft, the Vice-President James S. Sherman, died after an illness (he is the last Vice-President to die in office).
The outcome of the election was a clear win for Wilson. He managed to marry the divide of the Roosevelt-Taft rift: he promoted progressive values whilst being a conservative in the same vein as Taft. He achieved 42% of the popular vote, beating Roosevelt’s 27% and Taft’s 23%. What is also notable is the vote share of the fourth placed candidate: the Socialist Eugene Debs obtained 6% of the vote; this is the only presidential election in history in which four candidates achieved more than 5% of the vote.
So, Wilson would go on to a two-term presidency that had lasting significance because of the outbreak of the First World War, whilst William Taft would go on to become chief justice of the Supreme Court. For Roosevelt, he returned to travelling the globe and refused the Progressive party’s presidential nomination for the 1916 election. By early January 1919 he was dead due to a blood clot; his son Archibald telegraphed his relatives telling them: ‘The old lion is dead’.
Now looking back on the 1912 election it is clear that the Republican divide provided Wilson with an accessible route to the White House. However, the rift did not permanently damage the Republicans as other divides did in British politics, notably with the Liberals in the same era that became split between Lloyd-George and Asquith. The Republicans were back in power with the 1920 election and remained so until the arrival of Franklin D. Roosevelt – a distant cousin of TR’s – in 1933. However, the 1912 election does conjure up some interesting “what ifs”: what if Theodore Roosevelt was president during the First World War? It would have been a conflict that he would have savoured more than many other presidents, and furthermore, Roosevelt had previously argued for the need of a “League of Peace” to resolve disputes. Perhaps a different president could have led the United States into the post-war League of Nations, which could have meant a more peaceful world in the 1920s and 1930s.
On the whole, even without counterfactuals, the 1912 presidential election remains of interest due to the arrival of a prominent third-party and for its interesting campaign. It will continue to be a studied campaign long in the future, easily eclipsing the many tepid, dull campaigns of American history.