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1912: A Three-Way Race

Republicans had controlled the White House since Lincoln’s Presidency began in 1861 for all but two terms (Grover Cleveland in 1885-1889 and 1893-1897). In 1912, Democrats re-gained the Presidency in one of the most exciting elections in American history. 1912 brought changes to the election process. For the first time, candidates were nominated in direct primary elections. The campaign also featured a surprising reversal of Party loyalties, hotly debated domestic issues, and two dramatic Party conventions.

Former President Theodore Roosevelt, dissatisfied with the conservative direction taken by the Republican Party, began vying for the Party’s nomination. Although he had handpicked William Howard Taft as his successor in the White House, the two grew into bitter rivals over Roosevelt’s increasing radicalism and interest in reform. Winning most of the primaries, Roosevelt proved that his popular support was a real threat to Taft’s nomination. Still, he needed the support of the Republican National Committee, and it was solidly behind Taft. Thus the convention in Chicago marked the apex of a tense power struggle between backers of the incumbent and supporters of the beloved former President. Recognizing the conservative lock on Taft’s nomination, Roosevelt made a shocking announcement from the Convention floor: he would leave the Republican Party to form the new Progressive Party, and invite his supporters to follow.

The Democratic Party launched its own convention with high hopes. The Republican Party split seemed destined to hand them the election. But the Democrats, too, were unable to unite behind a single candidate until, on the forty-sixth ballot, they chose the intellectual Governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s progressive policies were much in line with Roosevelt’s, which made Roosevelt’s candidacy even more difficult. Complicating the situation was the ascendancy of Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party, and a strong, although fractured, national move towards reform. When the votes were all counted, Wilson won with 41.9% of the popular vote and 435 of 531 electoral votes—which was, at the time, the greatest margin of victory in American political history.

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