Some weeks ago, I wrote an essay explaining some of the general parameters of presidential elections in the United States. One of the most frequent comments returned to me involved the 1912 election. We are now rapidly approaching the 100th anniversary of the 1912 election, and yet it is still remembered for the convolution of its proceedings and the importance of its outcome.
The importance of the 1912 contest comes both internally, from the odd combination of factors that led to four viable candidates running against each other, and also externally, from how this election marked a turning point in the priorities of candidates and the electorate.
In describing these things, I may make some generalizations that may not be totally true. The nuances of American society and politics are so varied that I can't totally describe them in a few paragraphs, but I hope my generalizations don't seem totally ill-founded.
First, we should start with Chester Arthur1. How many Americans, even well educated ones, could name the platform that Chester Arthur ran for president under, who his opponent was, or even what year he won his election to the presidency? Very few people, unless they are experts in American history, are informed about the details of the Chester Arthur administration, or about Arthur's personal attributes. And I am not just writing this to pick on Chester Arthur--- Rutherford B Hayes, Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland are all names that don't bring emotional reactions, or even recognitions beyond the names, for most Americans. Between Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, there is a dearth of interesting American presidents. Other than Ulysses S Grant's appearance on the 50 dollar bill, none of them is exactly an iconic figure.
And what is true of personalities is also true of politics. Most of the political issues of latter half of the 19th century are not ones that resonate with people in the present day. After the end of reconstruction, the political issues seem mostly to have been about tariffs and other dry policy issues, as well as the fight over patronage. Which is not to say that this era didn't have its important political movements, because it did, but that they didn't seem to be an important factor in presidential elections.
Having described the end of the 19th century, we are ready to describe the beginning of the 20th century. After the Spanish-American War, foreign affairs became a much more important part of American politics, and the reform movements that had been important at local levels during the end of the 19th century gained wider currency. In addition, the United States had had its first young, charismatic, activist president since Abraham Lincoln, in the person of Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt had served out the rest of William McKinley's term after his assassination, and then won reelection in 1904, in a landslide in the popular and electoral vote. After the end of his second term, he chose to not seek election, preferring to go on an extended safari. He instead gave the blessings to William H Taft, a career Republican party functionary who had no previous electoral experience. Roosevelt, however, had second thoughts about Taft, and tried to win renomination as a progressive Republican. When he couldn't win the nomination, he formed the Progressive Party and ran against his former protégé.
As a note to what I wrote in my earlier essay about expected parameters in US Presidential elections, a situation where a former president forms a third party to run against one of his former trusted associates is certainly not something to be expected. And yet it did happen.
On the other side, the Democratic Party had been having an internal structure between its progressive and conservative wings as well. William Jennings Bryan had been nominated three times for president, losing each time. In 1904, a conservative candidate, Alton Parker had been nominated, and lost to Roosevelt. In 1912, it was a race between the progressive and conservative wings of the Democratic Party, which was eventually won by Woodrow Wilson, the former president of Princeton University and a progressive.
And many of the same ideas that had invigorated the progressive wing of the Democratic Party led to a strong socialist candidate, Eugene Debs, who would go on to win 6% of the vote, but who ran very strong in some areas, especially the Mountain States.
Thus, the 1912 Election had four candidates, three of whom represented a progressive agenda, and one of whom (the incumbent) represented the politics of the late 19th century.
After having described the set-up to the election, I must admit that the actual results are somewhat of a black box. Wilson ended up winning a plurality of the popular vote, along with an overwhelming majority in the electoral college. Wilson's success seems to have been built on the large block of votes available to him in the Solid South, as well as the fact that Taft and Roosevelt split the Republican vote between them. Taft won only two states, Utah and Vermont, in what is a historic defeat for an incumbent candidate.
The effects of the election are, I would say, still being felt. One of the major features of the election to me was that both Wilson and Roosevelt had an integrated ideological platform, with a catchy name: the New Freedom and New Nationalism, respectively. These would be the forerunners of the New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier and Great Society. These type of articulated platforms would be a great departure from the nature of politics in the late 19th century, which was, as far as I could tell, about men with muttonchops handing out sinecures.
The 1912 Election also is one of the great "What If?" points in American politics. If the Democrats had nominated a conservative instead of a progressive candidate, Roosevelt might have won, and either the Progressive or Republican Party would have become the nation's progressive party, while the Democratic Party would have been the nation's conservative party.
And finally, when studying the results for 1912, it shows just how much the popular and electoral votes play into each other in unusual scenarios. Although Wilson won a great deal of the electoral college, a shift in the popular vote in certain states (especially if one of the other candidates had not appeared on the ballot in that state) could have turned it into a situation with no electoral majority, in which case the decision would have been made by the House of Representatives.
And finally, the 1912 election was probably the last time for a long time in which we will see a socialist candidate outpolling an incumbent Republican in Arizona and Nevada.
And before you got to this footnote, did you honestly remember that Arthur never won the office of presidency, but gained it after Garfield's death?