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In 1912, three was a crowd: Teddy Roosevelt showed that a third party could make a serious run for the White House.

The question comes up often during presidential, elections, including this year's: Does a third-party candidate stand a chance of winning the nation's highest office?

If nothing else, the often overlooked election of 1912 proved that the right candidate--in this case, a larger-than-life former President coming out of retirement to run an insurgent campaign--could give the Republicans and Democrats a serious run for their money.

By 1912, Theodore Roosevelt had a well-deserved reputation for shaking things up. In 1898, at age 39, he resigned his post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to form a cavalry unit to fight in the Spanish American War in Cuba, where he and his fellow soldiers earned renown as the "Rough Riders." After serving as Governor of New York, Roosevelt became Vice President in Republican President William McKinley's second term. When McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Roosevelt, then 42, became the nation's youngest President.


As President, Roosevelt pursued a pioneering agenda of environmental conservation and of breaking up the trusts, or corporate monopolies, in such industries as oil, railroads, and tobacco (for which he had earned the nickname "trustbuster"). He went on to win a full term in 1904, but conservatives in his own party increasingly came to oppose what they considered his anti-business policies.

Roosevelt didn't seek re-election in 1908. Instead, he practically handed the presidency to his Secretary of War and chosen successor, William Howard Taft, a rotund Ohioan.

Taft, who would have preferred an appointment to the Supreme Court, won the election, but did not agressively pursue Roosevelt's activist policies. This angered Roosevelt, who in 1910 urged his followers to undertake "a genuine and permanent moral awakening."

Challenging Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912, Roosevelt went on to win most of his party's primaries, but Taft was nominated in Chicago at a convention controlled by conservatives.


Roosevelt bolted the Republican Party and a few weeks later, he was nominated by the Progressive Party, a coalition of mostly insurgent liberal Republicans. At the convention, Roosevelt declared that he felt as fit as a bull (or male) moose, which became the party's nickname.

The Democrats nominated Woodrow Wilson, a Virginian by birth who was Governor of New Jersey. Wilson was not a born campaigner, but he benefited from the split among Republicans.

On one of the key issues in the campaign--how to deal with the trusts--Roosevelt favored an interventionist approach by the government, while Taft had summed up his philosophy this way: "A national government cannot create good times. It cannot make the rain to fall, the sun to shine, or the crops to grow," he said, but by meddling could "prevent prosperity that otherwise might have taken place." Wilson felt that competition was the answer to taming monopolies, which meant Roosevelt was to the left of not only Taft but Wilson as well.

Unlike his opponents, Taft barely campaigned, acknowledging that he needed to generate more publicity but admitting: "I know it, but I can't do it. I couldn't if I would, and I wouldn't if I could."

Roosevelt, meanwhile, barnstormed the nation, sounding increasingly radical even to some of his own supporters as he sought to fend off the fourth-party campaign of Eugene V. Debs, a railroad labor leader who was the Socialist Party candidate.

Just before a speech in Milwaukee in the closing weeks of the campaign, a madman shot Roosevelt in the chest. Roosevelt insisted on delivering a shortened version of the 50-page speech he'd been carrying in his coat pocket (and which helped slow the bullet that lodged an inch from his heart). "It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose," he declared.


On Election Day, Wilson (and his running mate, Thomas R. Marshall of Indiana) won with less than 42 percent of the popular vote. But Roosevelt ran second with 27 percent--the only time in the 20th century that a third-party candidate got more votes (electoral or popular) than a Democratic or Republican nominee. Taft was third with 23 percent. Debs's 6 percent marked the peak of the Socialists' political power. Wilson's share of the electoral vote was more commanding: 435, to 88 for Roosevelt and 8 for Taft.

In 1921, Taft finally got his wish when Wilson's successor, Republican Warren G. Harding, appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.


The race between Taft, Roosevelt, and Wilson showed that a third-party candidate could be a serious contender for the White House.


To help students understand how a third-party challenger aroused the electorate and proved a serious challenger to both the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates.

CRITICAL THINKING: Tell students to focus on two themes: the power of a third-party candidate, and the split between liberals and conservatives that resonates to the present.

Refer students to Teddy Roosevelt's environmentalism and breaking up of corporate monopolies. Ask why it seems unlikely that a modern third-party challenger--Ralph Nader, for example--could garner the kind of support that Roosevelt did in 1912. (One possible answer: It takes huge amounts of money to run for President today.)

Next, switch to the issues of 1912. Ask students what they think are the pros and cons of government regulation of big business?

Democrats have often argued that businesses needs regulation to protect consumers from unscrupulous practices. Republicans would argue that government regulation impedes efficient production. (See Taft's quote in column two, page 27.)

WRITING EXERCISE: Tell students to follow up on their lists of pros and cons. Assign them to write at least a 100-word essay in which they defend the conservative (Taft) or liberal (Roosevelt) position on government regulation of big business.


* Would you prefer a presidential race in which there were three or more serious candidates? What are the pros and cons of having more than two serious candidates competing for the presidency?

* If you had voted in the 1912 election, which of the candidates would you have voted for?

* Why do you think that Americans remain so divided between conservatives and liberals 92 years after the 1912 election?

WEB WATCH: http://1912.history.ohio provides a comprehensive backgrounder on the 1912 campaign issues and candidates.


The 1912 Election

1. Before he became President, Teddy Roosevelt gained national fame

a as Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

b for his record as an environmentalist.

c as Governor of New York.

d for his exploits in the Spanish-American War.

2. During his presidency, Roosevelt earned both praise and criticism for breaking up

a organized crime.

b the British Empire.

c big-business monopolies.

d anti-American conspiracies.

3. Roosevelt had a large following, but William Howard Taft won the nomination of the Republican Party in 1912 because

a his support was even larger than Roosevelt's.

b Chicago, the site of the nominating convention, was a Republican stronghold.

c he paid delegates to vote for him.

d the convention was controlled, by conservatives.

4. Following Taft's nomination, Roosevelt left the Republican Party and became the presidential nominee of the

a Progressive Party.

b Libertarian Party.

c New Democratic Party.

d Independence Party.

5. Which of the following is the most likely explanation for Woodrow Wilson's election in 1912?

a He spent the most on campaign advertising.

b He was the best speaker.

c Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican vote.

d Roosevelt's tough demeanor had alienated too many Americans.

6. Whose political views--Roosevelt's or Taft's--are closest to your own? Explain your answer.

Answer Key

1. (d) 2. (c) 3. (d) 4. (a) 5. (c)

6. Students' answers will vary.

Sam Roberts is an editor for The Times.
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Title Annotation:Times Past
Author:Roberts, Sam
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Date:Oct 11, 2004
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