Theodore Roosevelt: Campaigns and Elections

Theodore Roosevelt: Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1904:

After Roosevelt acceded to the presidency in 1901, he soon began to think about how to win election as President in his own right. He realized that although he did not always agree with conservative Republicans in Congress, he needed their support in order to win the nomination in 1904. To that end, he worked out an understanding with legislators, especially Senator Nelson W. Aldrich of Rhode Island, which gave him a free hand in foreign affairs in return for holding back the more progressive items of his domestic agenda. But TR did not refrain from using the executive office to break up monopolies, such as the Northern Securities Company, to mediate in labor disputes between unions and management, as he did in the coal miners' strike in 1902, and to use the White House as a "bully pulpit," from which he lectured the nation on how government should regulate big business. Fearful that his anti-corporate sentiments had soured party bosses, Roosevelt toned down his rhetoric in 1903. Most importantly, he was able to place his people in key party positions and maneuvered Mark Hanna, now the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, to endorse his candidacy several months prior to the 1904 convention. Then TR turned to the public, holding press conferences, launching a national tour of western states that lasted for thirty days, and boldly issuing an executive order that provided pensions for all veterans between the ages of sixty-two and sixty-seven.

With Mark Hanna's untimely death prior to the Republican convention in Chicago, one of Roosevelt's main competitors was gone, making TR's nomination a foregone conclusion. He was nominated unanimously on the first ballot. He picked Senator Charles W. Fairbanks of Indiana—a conservative Republican with close ties to the railroad industry—as his running mate. When the Democrats met in St. Louis, they picked two conservatives, Judge Alton B. Parker, from New York, and eighty-one-year-old Henry G. Davis, a wealthy ex-senator from Virginia and the oldest man to ever run for the vice-presidency. The Democrats, showcasing themselves as the "sane and safe choice," attacked the Roosevelt administration as "spasmodic, erratic, sensational, spectacular, and arbitrary." Republicans touted Roosevelt's record in foreign policy and promised more of the same. Neither Roosevelt nor Parker actively campaigned for the presidency, as was the custom. 

Over the summer of 1904, Roosevelt directed the campaign from his front porch at Oyster Bay, issuing lofty statements to his supporters and instructions on strategy to Republican state parties. Roosevelt received a large amount of money for the campaign from wealthy capitalists, such as Edward H. Harriman (the railroad tycoon), Henry C. Frick (the steel baron), and J.P. Morgan (the financial potentate of Wall Street). The wealthy capitalists and their friends contributed more than $2 million to Roosevelt's campaign. They supported Roosevelt because they preferred an "unpredictable head of a predictable party" in power than the "predictable head of an unpredictable party." They might have favored Parker as a person, but the Democrats were simply too populist in their constituency and potentially too radical in their ideas for the conservative business leaders ever to trust.

The election, however, had never been in doubt. TR won 336 electoral votes to Parker's 140. He took every state outside of the South, including Missouri. Roosevelt was immensely popular and rode to a second term on a huge wave of public support, unlike anything the nation had ever seen. After the victory, Roosevelt vowed not to run again for the presidency, believing it was wise to follow the precedent of only serving two terms in office. However, he came to regret that promise in advance of the 1908 election, believing he still had much of his agenda to accomplish. However, he held true to his pledge and supported his chosen successor, William Howard Taft, in 1908.

The Campaign and Election of 1912

Before he left office in 1909, Roosevelt hand-picked William Howard Taft as his successor and worked to get him elected. Taft had served in the Roosevelt administration as governor of the Philippines and secretary of war. During the election, Taft vowed to run the country just as Roosevelt had. But the new administration was off to a rocky start with the outgoing President. After apparently indicating that he would retain most of the existing cabinet members, Taft soon discovered that he would be better served by his own hand-picked secretaries. Roosevelt was miffed at having his cabinet members dismissed and at not being consulted on the new appointments.

After Taft's inauguration, Roosevelt traveled in Africa and Europe for more than a year. He went on safari with his son Kermit, where he acquired more than 3,000 animal trophies, including eight elephants, seven hippos, nine lions, and thirteen rhinos. He then met up with Edith in Egypt, and the two of them journeyed throughout Europe, encountering constant demands to meet and greet royalty and politicians. When the Roosevelts returned to New York in June 1910, they were greeted by one of the largest mass receptions ever given in New York City.

When he first arrived back in the United States, Roosevelt remained noncommittal on the Taft presidency. He wanted time to assess Taft's performance before making any judgments. However, some of his old friends had already brought him negative reports. Gifford Pinchot was so angry with Taft regarding conservation that he had earlier traveled to Italy to meet Roosevelt and discuss the situation. Once TR returned home, he was frequently visited by old friends who decried Taft's supposed efforts to undo his work.

During this period, progressivism was gradually rising from the local and state level to the national level. Increasing numbers of people across the nation supported expanding the role of the federal government to ensure the welfare of the people. Pressured by the progressive wing of the Republican Party to challenge Taft in 1912, Roosevelt weighed his options. Eventually he decided to throw "his hat into the ring" and run against his former protégé.

The Republicans met in Chicago in June 1912, hopelessly split between the Roosevelt progressives and the supporters of President Taft. Roosevelt came to the convention having won a series of preferential primaries that put him ahead of the President in the race for party delegates. Taft, however, controlled the convention floor, and his backers managed to exclude most of the Roosevelt delegates by not recognizing their credentials. These tactics enraged TR, who then refused to allow himself to be nominated, paving the way for Taft to win on the first ballot.

Roosevelt and his supporters abandoned the G.O.P. and reconvened in Chicago two weeks later to form the Progressive Party. They then nominated TR as their presidential candidate with Governor Hiram Johnson of California as his running mate. Roosevelt electrified the convention with a dramatic speech in which he announced that "we stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord." Declaring that he felt "as strong as a Bull Moose," Roosevelt gave the new party its popular name—the Bull Moose Party—and described its party platform as "New Nationalism." Its tenets included political justice and economic opportunity, and it sought a minimum wage for women; an eight-hour workday; a social security system; a national health service; a federal securities commission; and direct election of U.S. senators. The platform also supported the initiative, referendum, and recall as means for the people to exert more direct control over government. TR worried about the power of the minority—often politicians—over the majority and thought these changes would make government more accountable to the people.

The Democrats nominated the reform governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, for President and Thomas R. Marshall, the governor of Indiana, as vice president. Wilson's platform, known as "New Freedom," 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, and a single-term presidency. Although Roosevelt and Wilson were both progressives, they differed over the means and extent to which government should intervene or regulate the states and the economy.

Differences between New Nationalism and New Freedom over trusts and the tariff became a central issue of the campaign. Roosevelt believed the federal government should act as a "trustee" for the American people, controlling and supervising the economy in the public interest. Wilson had greater reservations about a large federal government and sought a return to a more decentralized republic. He argued that if big business were deprived of artificial advantages, such as the protective tariff and monopolies, the natural forces of competition would assure everyone an equal chance at success—thus minimizing the role of government. Whereas Roosevelt differentiated between "good" and "bad" trusts, Wilson suggested that all monopolies were harmful to the nation. Roosevelt'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, TR dramatized his vitality by insisting on finishing a campaign speech even with an assailant's bullet lodged in his chest. Fortunately, the bullet had been slowed down by the pages of a thick speech he had in his coat pocket, but Roosevelt's courageous—perhaps foolhardy—act reminded Americans of what they loved about him.

Wilson captured 41.9 percent of the vote to Roosevelt's 27.4 percent and Taft's 23.1 percent. Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs won 6 percent of the vote. Despite the divided popular vote, Wilson compiled 435 electoral votes compared to Roosevelt's 88 and Taft's 8. Roosevelt won in six states—California, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and Washington. Despite its loss, the strong showing of the Progressive Party signaled the emergence of a significant force in U.S. political history. It also reflected a rising progressive spirit in the United States. Together with Wilson and Debs, Roosevelt had challenged the conservative wing of the Republican Party and left it discredited. In addition, although TR lost the election, much of his New Nationalism program was enacted during Wilson's presidency.