Theodore Roosevelt campaigned actively throughout the nation, including the
South, and was received by enthusiastic crowds everywhere. Because of the
dignified manner set by his opponents, Roosevelt only vented a few personal
attacks, referring to “Professor Wilson” and concluding that Taft was “a dead
cock in a pit.” Many of Roosevelt’s supporters, though, were sometimes
heated in their rhetoric, and much of the press attacked him and the Progressive
Party as dangerous radicals. He was constrained to a degree by the fact
that Wilson, whom he saw as his main rival, only discussed a few issues.
Roosevelt’s organization had an amateurish cast because most of the professional
politicians stayed with the Republican Party, but that may have freed him to
move even farther to the left. He argued that the GOP could not meet the
needs of the people because it was controlled by wealthy businessmen, corporate
lawyers, and compliant politicians.
Roosevelt aimed most of his rhetorical firepower against Wilson, who he accused
of being an “ultra-conservative” promoting the “antiquated doctrine” of “rural
Toryism” and a tool of publisher Harper’s Weekly George Harvey and Wall
Street financiers. Roosevelt stressed that the Democratic nominee’s
antitrust proposals would actually allow untrammeled liberty for large
corporations. He also recycled Wilson’s past speeches and writings while a
professor and Princeton president, which disparagingly characterized labor
unions as trying to get as much as possible for doing the least work and which
identified the march of liberty with increased limits on government authority.
Roosevelt wondered whether his opponent favored abolishing the Interstate
Commerce Commission and other measures to regulate the economy and society.
The Progressive Party nominee considered the Sherman Antitrust Law as too tame,
and proposed a federal commission to regulate the trusts. He spoke in
favor of women’s suffrage and laws to protect working women and children.
Republicans charged that, as the party’s nominee in 1904, Roosevelt had accepted
a large donation from Standard Oil and asked for more. He responded with a
letter dated 1904 that directed the national party treasurer not to solicit
money from large business corporations. He also drew criticism that one of
his close advisors was George W. Perkins, formerly associated with New York Life
Insurance Company and J. P. Morgan and Company.
On October 14, Roosevelt was shot while making a speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Deflected by the eyeglass case in his pocket, the bullet only inflicted a flesh
wound, and the candidate finishing making the speech to the shocked audience.
His failed assassin was John Schrank, who claimed that late President William
McKinley told him in a dream to kill Roosevelt. Shrank was committed to a
mental institution, where he died in 1943.
The Socialist Party
In 1904 and 1908, the Socialist Party received slightly less than 3% of the
national vote. Although the total was down a fraction in the latter
contest, many Socialists agreed with their presidential nominee, Eugene Debs,
that 1912 “is our year.” Between 1910 and 1912, the party elected over
1200 public officials, including Congressman Victor Berger of Wisconsin, 56
mayors, and 300 aldermen. In 1912, the Socialist Party gave Debs his
fourth consecutive presidential nomination, and he ran an energetic campaign
throughout the country.
The Socialist Party’s national platform began boldly by declaring “that the
capitalist system has outgrown its historical function, and has become utterly
incapable of meeting the problems now confronting society.” It
characterized the country as controlled by an “oligarchy of wealth” and accused
both Republicans and Democrats of being “faithful servants of the oppressors.”
It concluded that past attempts to regulate business had been “utterly futile
The Socialist platform recommended a laundry list of solutions. On economic
policy, it advocated government ownership and management of transportation,
communication, and other large industries; government control of the banking and
monetary systems; and a graduated income tax. For labor, it endorsed
public works programs for the unemployed, limited hours and days for workers,
minimum wages, retirement pensions, disability insurance, and outlawing labor by
children under 16. Its call for greater democracy included women’s
suffrage; the initiative, referendum, recall, as well as proportional
representation; and the direct election of not only of U.S. senators, but also
of presidents and vice presidents (rather than via the Electoral College).
For the judicial system, the platform supported removing the Supreme Court’s
authority to rule congressional laws unconstitutional, the election of judges
for short terms, and the abolition of federal district and appeals courts.
The Election Results
On November 5, 1912, Woodrow Wilson became the first Democrat elected president
in 20 years. He received a large majority of Electoral College votes, 435
to Roosevelt’s 88 and Taft’s 8. However, he only won a plurality of the
popular vote, 42% to Roosevelt’s 27%, Taft’s 23%, and Deb’s 6%. Wilson’s
percentage was actually lower than Bryan’s 43% in 1908, revealing the importance
of the Republican split to his 1912 victory. Taft carried only Vermont and
Utah, Roosevelt won six states—Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, South Dakota,
Washington, and California—and Wilson captured the rest. However, because
of the three-way race, the Democrat did not win by a majority in any state
outside the South.
Roosevelt took the urban vote, winning in eight of the ten largest cities,
including the three biggest. However, the Rough Rider’s totals were a
personal victory, not one for the new Progressive Party. Although some
incumbents switched affiliation from the Republican Party, only one governor, a
few congressmen and state legislators, no U.S. senators, and virtually no local
officeholders were elected under the Progressive Party banner. Debs’s
popular vote was the highest attained by any Socialist presidential nominee,
before or since, and more than doubled his percentage from 1908.
The Democrats remained the majority party in the U.S. House, with 291 seats to
127 for Republicans and 14 for Progressives, and gained control of the U.S.
Senate, with 51 Democrats to 44 Republicans and 1 Progressive. The size of
the majorities and the relative harmony in the Democratic Party helped President
Wilson enact his “New Freedom”
Sources consulted: H. W. Brands, TR:
The Last Romantic (New York: Basic Books, 1997); Paul F. Boller Jr.,
Presidential Campaigns (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984); John
Milton Cooper, Jr., The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and
Theodore Roosevelt (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, 1983); Robert J. Dinkin,
Campaigning in America: A History of Election Practices (Westport, CT:
Greenwood Press, 1989); Lewis L. Gould, “Champ Clark, American National
Biography online; George E. Mowry, “Election of 1912,” in History of
American Presidential Elections, ed. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., New York:
Chelsea House Publishers, 1985; Gil Troy, See How They Ran: The
Changing Role of the Presidential Candidate (New York: The Free Press,
1991); “1912: Competing Visions for America,” Ohio State University
website; Landon Warner, “Judson Harmon,” The Ohio Historical Society online.