By Janine Balekdjian, Consular Intern
This year’s Republican National Convention will be held in Tampa Bay, Florida, from August 27-30. During it, Mitt Romney will officially become the Republican nominee, having secured enough delegates to do so in May, and other Republican leaders will make speeches to get the voting base fired up – particularly in the important state of Florida (a state with a large population that swings between supporting Democrats and Republicans for president). While in the distant past, there might be some doubt at a party convention about who would be the nominee, the modern system of primary elections and caucuses in the states has removed almost all sense of drama. It is highly unlikely that a disgruntled party leader will storm out of the convention to create his own political party with which to challenge both Romney and Obama. But that exact scenario happened at a Republican National Convention a century ago, in 1912.
The Republican Party was strong at the turn of the last century. Beginning with the presidency of William McKinley in 1897, the Republicans had enjoyed 15 years of uninterrupted rule. The party itself, however, had undergone major shifts. McKinley was the last Republican of this period with close ties to the business establishment, and the last vestige of the Gilded Age. When McKinley was assassinated in 1901, his Vice President, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt assumed the presidency. Roosevelt turned out to be an incredibly popular public figure, ushering in the Progressive Era on a national level (it had begun a few years prior on a state and local level). The Progressive Era was the antithesis of the Gilded Age; during it, politicians like Teddy Roosevelt made reigning in the excesses of corrupt corporations and political machines their top priority. Roosevelt was known as a “trust-buster”; he broke up large corporations that used their size and power to circumvent the regulatory system and used them as examples to get other businesses to voluntarily follow the law. In addition to busting trusts, Teddy Roosevelt was sympathetic to the needs of U.S. workers, and promised a “Square Deal” to protect the U.S. middle class.
In 1908, after two terms, Teddy Roosevelt chose not to run for another term as president and instead endorsed William Howard Taft, a member of his cabinet. Roosevelt was convinced that Taft would carry on his progressive agenda, and Taft easily beat the Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan. However, once in office, Taft proved himself to be politically inept. He ignored the media and had none of Roosevelt’s charisma, leading to confusion over his image. Unlike Roosevelt, he did not speak publicly against big business, which, combined with the fact that he appointed anti-progressive politicians to cabinet spots, lead many including Roosevelt to think that he actually was not a progressive. In reality, Taft filed 90 antitrust lawsuits, compared to Roosevelt’s 54, but Taft’s conservative rhetoric lost him the support of Roosevelt and his reformers.
Taft, as an incumbent president, expected to be easily nominated for a second term at the 1912 Republican National Convention. However, after a disagreement over U.S. Steel, which Roosevelt believed was a good business but Taft charged under an antitrust lawsuit, Roosevelt declared his candidacy for the nomination. Roosevelt won most of the primaries, but primaries were much less important at the time and Taft had the support of the Republican establishment despite Roosevelt’s popularity with the public. The 1912 Republican National Convention dragged on for two weeks in a stalemate before Roosevelt, seeing that he could not win, gathered his supporters outside the convention hall and declared the formation of his own third party, the Progressive Party, ceding the Republican nomination to Taft. The Progressive Party was commonly known as the Bull Moose Party, because after his speech, Roosevelt told a reporter, “I’m as fit as a bull moose.” In his speech forming the Progressive Party, Roosevelt stated, “to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.”
The race of 1912 became a competitive three-party race, with Taft and Roosevelt running against each other as well as the Democrat Woodrow Wilson. All three men claimed to be progressive and endeavored to convince voters that they were. On the campaign trail, Roosevelt was shot in the chest, and rather than going to the hospital, he delivered his 90 minute speech anyway, declaring, “It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.” Roosevelt ran a strong campaign, but the part of the electorate which typically voted Republican was split between him and Taft, allowing Woodrow Wilson to easily win the presidency. 1912 was the only time in U.S. history that a major party candidate finished third in a presidential race; Roosevelt won 88 Electoral College votes to Taft’s 8, with Wilson winning 435. (Popular vote results were 41.8% for Wilson, 27.4% for Roosevelt, and 23.2% for Taft, with 7.6% for other small parties. They won in 40, 6, and 2 states, respectively.) The 1912 election ended 15 years of Republican presidency, but Wilson also proved to be a committed progressive in his two terms.