Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1912

Although Woodrow Wilson was convinced that God had destined him to be President, it took all his political skill and a good deal of luck to garner the Democratic presidential nomination at the party convention in Baltimore in June 1912. At the convention, progressives divided their support between Speaker of the House Champ Clark of Missouri and Wilson. Many southern delegates supported Representative Oscar W. Underwood of Alabama. The majority of the party machine politicians favored Governor Judson Harmon of Ohio, a moderate Democrat. William Jennings Bryan, three-time candidate for President, still had a strong following in the party and was an unpredictable factor.

The support of two-thirds, or 726, of the delegates was required to win the nomination, and for the first fourteen ballots, Clark held a commanding lead. When Tammany Hall forces shifted from Harmon to Clark, Bryan, fearful that a deal had been cut with party bosses and Wall Street interests, threw his support to Wilson, stalling Clark's momentum but not carrying enough votes to give Wilson the nomination. Wilson's men then promised Underwood that if Wilson withdrew, their support would go to the Alabamian. With the danger that Underwood would withdraw in favor of Clark thus nullified, Wilson gradually gained ground, capturing the lead on the twenty-eight ballot. His victory on the forty-sixth ballot came only after his managers quietly made a deal with the leaders of the Indiana machine to give Governor Thomas R. Marshall the vice presidential nomination. (Marshall is remembered for little but a single witty remark. While listening to a senator drone on about the needs of the nation, Marshall commented audibly from his seat as presiding officer: "What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar.")

Candidate Wilson's platform called for limits on campaign contributions by corporations, tariff reductions, new and stronger antitrust laws, banking and currency reform, a federal income tax, direct election of senators, a single term presidency, and the independence of the Philippines. Unlike Theodore Roosevelt's call for the strict government regulation of monopolies, Wilson followed the advice of his key adviser, Louis Brandeis, in calling for the breakup of all monopolies—Brandeis was a Boston attorney and leading corporate critic whom Wilson would later name to the Supreme Court. Whereas Roosevelt differentiated between "good" and "bad" trusts, Wilson suggested that all monopolies were harmful to the nation. He advocated a restored competition that would benefit consumers and reduce the power of corporate wealth in the nation. Calling his program "New Freedom," in contrast to Roosevelt's "New Nationalism," Wilson accepted Brandeis's argument that regulation would never solve the problem of corporate power because corporations would use their power to control the regulator—the federal government. The differences between the New Freedom and the New Nationalism over trusts and the tariff became the central issues of the campaign, largely because they symbolized a basic difference between Wilson and Roosevelt over the role of government: Roosevelt believed the federal government should act as a "trustee" for the American people, controlling and supervising the economy in the public interest. Wilson argued that if big business was deprived of artificial advantages, such as the protective tariff, the government's role could be minimal because natural forces of competition would assure everyone of an equal chance at success.

The Republicans met in Chicago in June, hopelessly split between the Roosevelt progressives and the supporters of President William Howard Taft. "TR," as Roosevelt was called, came to the convention having won a series of party preferential primaries that put him ahead of the President in the race for delegates. However, Taft controlled the convention floor, and his backers managed to exclude most of the Roosevelt delegates by not recognizing their credentials. Roosevelt, enraged over Taft's tactics, refused to allow himself to be nominated, thus allowing Taft an easy win on the first ballot. The party faithful renominated Vice President James S. Sherman of New York. Their platform underlined retention of the protective tariff, civil service protection, conservation of natural resources, and restrictions on immigration.

Roosevelt's supporters bolted the Republican convention and reconvened across town to create a new party, the Progressives. The delegates nominated Roosevelt for President and California Governor Hiram Johnson for vice president. Roosevelt electrified the convention with a dramatic speech in which he announced that he would "stand at Armageddon and battle for the Lord" and declared that he felt "as strong as a Bull Moose," thus giving the new party its popular name. Their platform read like a listing of progressive issues, including most of those in the Democratic platform, with the addition of suffrage; a minimum wage for women; an eight-hour workday; a social security system; a national health service; a federal securities commission; the initiative; referendum, and recall; and an easier method for amending the Constitution. The Progressives supported a protective tariff only insofar as it benefited labor.

It might have been expected that the Republican split would have assured Wilson a landslide victory, but that was not the case. Because the Republicans had been the majority party since the 1890s, they enjoyed a natural advantage. When Taft retired to the White House and his favorite golf courses after making a few speeches, his conservative supporters had little choice but to sit out of the election, which many did, or hold their noses and vote for Roosevelt. The former President's colorful personality helped him overcome the disadvantage of running as a third-party candidate, and he and Wilson contended fiercely for the support of voters interested in reform. Near the end of the campaign, Roosevelt dramatized his vitality by insisting on finishing a campaign speech even with an attempted assassin's bullet lodged in his chest. Fortunately, the bullet had barely penetrated the pages of a thick speech the candidate had in his coat pocket, but Roosevelt's courageous—perhaps foolhardy—act reminded Americans of what they loved about him. Privately, Wilson admitted that he often felt like a colorless schoolmaster next to the charismatic Roosevelt, but people listened closely to his careful, elegantly phrased speeches. As the campaign went on and the candidates refined their positions, the differences between the New Freedom and the New Nationalism shrank. When all the votes were counted, Wilson won with fewer votes than Bryan had received in each of his three defeats in 1896, 1900, and 1908. He captured 41.9 percent of the vote (6,296,547) to Roosevelt's 27.4 percent (4,118,571) and Taft's 23 percent (3,486,720). Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs won 6 percent (900,672). In the electoral college count, however, Wilson won in forty states, giving him 435 votes. Roosevelt carried only six states—California, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and Washington—compiling a mere eighty-eight votes. Taft won eight electoral college votes from the two states that stayed with him, Utah and Vermont.

The Campaign and Election of 1916

In 1916, Wilson had the advantage of incumbency but feared the reunited Republican Party. Much had happened in the four years since the last election. Wilson had emerged as a powerful champion of the progressive agenda on the domestic scene and a strong spokesperson for American neutrality in the devastating war that raged across Western Europe. But the President recognized, as many Democrats in the West and South did not, that the United States could be drawn into the war at any moment by the act of some obscure German submarine commander. Hence, while he advocated continued neutrality, he also called for military preparedness, and the apparent tension between those two policies troubled many Democrats, particularly Irish Americans and German Americans. At the Democratic convention in St. Louis, Wilson won on the first ballot, as did his running mate, Vice President Marshall. The platform called for military preparedness, a world association of nations to maintain peace after the war in Europe had ended, Pan-American unity, a ban on child labor, women's suffrage, and prison reform. During the convention, the delegates cheered a new campaign slogan, "He Kept Us Out of War," which world conditions made a hope more than a promise.

On the Republican side, Theodore Roosevelt believed that the war would bring him back into the White House. He championed intervention and accused Wilson of cowardice for his mediation efforts. The outspoken Roosevelt failed to understand the depth of resentment many Republicans felt toward him for splitting the party in 1912. Most regular Republicans believed that he had handed the election to Wilson when he bolted the party. Equally important, his rantings and attacks on "hyphenated Americans" who opposed Great Britain alienated many of his progressive supporters. As a result, his drive for the nomination fell apart before it could get started. The Republicans nominated Charles Evans Hughes of New York, a moderate Republican whom Taft had appointed to the Supreme Court in 1910. Roosevelt derided Hughes as "a bearded iceberg," but Hughes won the nomination on the third ballot with 949 votes. Former Vice President Charles W. Fairbanks of Indiana was picked for the second spot on the ticket.

Perceptive observers of the American political scene were confident that Hughes would win in November. The Republican Party stood united behind a single candidate, and the Democrats had won only three presidential elections since 1860. Voters seemed apathetic and weary of progressive reforms, the key accomplishments of the Democratic administration over the last four years. Hughes's foreign policy, moreover, which emphasized a straightforward preparedness program, seemed less muddled than Wilson's call for neutrality and preparedness in the same breath. Critics charged Wilson with wanting the nation both in the war and aloof from it, a utopian stance that seemed unrealistic to many.

Hughes went to sleep on November 6 certain that he would win. It was not clear until two days later, when the returns from California and Ohio came in, that Wilson had squeaked to a narrow victory in both the popular vote and the electoral college. Hughes lost the traditionally Democratic South, the progressive West, and a few key midwestern states with large German American populations that opposed American entry into the war against Germany. Wilson captured the support of labor unions, western women in those few states where they enjoyed suffrage, most ethnic groups who hated the British and resented Roosevelt, and almost all progressives and many socialists. He captured thirty states to Hughes's eighteen. Wilson won 49.4 percent (9,127,695) of the popular vote; Hughes captured 46.2 percent (8,533,507). The electoral college ballot gave Wilson a narrow twenty-three vote margin—277 to 254. Had Hughes not slighted Senator Hiram Johnson and California's labor unions, he might have carried that state to victory in the electoral college. Ironically, for a President who campaigned as a champion of democracy, Wilson is the only President in American history to be elected twice without achieving a popular majority in either contest, though both times he did achieve a plurality.