These days, national political party conventions are little more than a formality meant to stir up the base for the general election ahead. The presidential aspirants usually come into the proceedings with enough delegates to seize the nomination, and there is little need for balloting or floor fights. The party rallies around their candidate and prepares for the fight ahead. The Republican National Convention that began in Chicago on June 18, 1912 was a much different story.
The GOP standard bearer, incumbent William Howard Taft, went into the convention facing a formidable opponent in none other than former president Theodore Roosevelt. Taft, like many incumbents before him, did not expect to be challenged for reelection from within his own party. This has always been a rare occurrence in American politics, but Roosevelt was a rare kind of man.
Roosevelt had served nearly two full terms in the White House as the 26th president, becoming America’s youngest chief executive when William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. He cemented his legacy as a trust-buster, a friend to the environment, a booster of America on the world stage, and more. When he was resoundingly reelected in 1904, Roosevelt vowed not to run again after his second term was complete.
When that second term ended, Roosevelt had the power and the popularity to pick his successor. He chose longtime friend and supporter William Howard Taft. Taft was an accomplished politician with a sharp legal mind, and with Roosevelt’s blessing he was elected in 1908.
Roosevelt became quickly disappointed with his handpicked successor. He had viewed Taft as his prodigy and he envisioned a Taft presidency as an extension of his own. Taft had other ideas. He may have been thankful for Roosevelt’s heavy-handed endorsement (Roosevelt did not think he was sufficiently appreciative), but Taft was determined to run his own show at the White House.
While a backer of many of Roosevelt’s progressive reforms, Taft followed a more conservative course than his predecessor. His choice of cabinet appointments, his rolling back of some conservation policies, and his stance on tariffs all rankled Roosevelt. Perhaps most upsetting of all to Roosevelt was Taft’s perceived lack of deference to the man who made him president.
Roosevelt’s displeasure found a voice after returning from an extended African safari. His progressive supporters grumbled to him about how Taft was pulling the GOP in a more conservative direction. Roosevelt encouraged them to take back the Republican Party or risk losing the White House in 1912. When that didn’t work to his satisfaction, Roosevelt spoke out himself.
Throughout the 1910 midterms and much of 1911, Roosevelt routinely criticized Taft in public, and the press were eager to broadcast his words far and wide. He remained cagey about running for the presidency, planning instead on running in 1916 against whichever Democrat he was sure would defeat Taft in 1912.
In November 1911, top Republicans from Taft’s home state of Ohio endorsed a Roosevelt run for the White House. A movement to draft the former president for one more go-round for the White House gained momentum. The following January, Roosevelt said, “If the people make a draft on me I shall not decline to serve.” Roosevelt took it upon himself to save the Republican Party and the country.
The 1912 Republican nominating contest was the first time the party used the primary system. Only 12 states participated, and Roosevelt won most of them. Taft’s well-organized party machine dominated state conventions in non-primary states, but that did not stop fights from breaking out between opposing forces.
The bad blood between the candidates grew stronger as the convention approached. They even got down in the mud and exchanged insults; Roosevelt called Taft a puzzlewit, and Taft bit back by calling Roosevelt a honeyfugler. Not exactly the foul language we hear today, but it still had the desired effect.
Taft was even more incensed by Roosevelt’s suggestion that judicial decisions should be recalled by popular vote. This was a travesty to the legal scholar president, who believed that Roosevelt’s populism had gone too far.
The former brothers-in-arms entered the convention in Chicago evenly matched in the delegate count. Roosevelt, always eager to step into the fray, broke from tradition and attended the convention in person. It didn’t do him any good. The Republican National Committee was firmly behind the incumbent, and swung the nomination to Taft on the first ballot.
Roosevelt declared to fight on for the presidency from outside the Republican Party. He called on his never-quit attitude and his outsized ego to rally his forces. “I’ll name the compromise candidate. He’ll be me. I’ll name the compromise platform. It will be our platform.”
In August, Roosevelt and his supporters established the Progressive Party, which was commonly referred to as the Bull Moose Party. He campaigned on a progressive platform that had more in common with what Democrat opponent Woodrow Wilson was offering than Republican candidate Taft.
Roosevelt may have never considered that his third-party bid would split the vote and hand the presidency to the Democrats, but that is what happened. Voters saw a Republican Party in disarray and were ready for a change after 16 straight years of Republicans in the White House. Or maybe Roosevelt didn’t care. His animosity toward Taft was so great that it is conceivable that he would have rather see someone from the opposition party win the presidency than his old political comrade. Another possibility, the most likely of all, is that Roosevelt probably thought he could win a third term to the White House.
To his credit, Theodore Roosevelt came closer to winning the presidency in 1912 than any other third-party candidate before or since. He even bested Taft in the popular vote and won 88 electoral votes to Taft’s eight. And even though Roosevelt denied the Republicans a victory in 1912, they would return to the White House in 1920.