Monday, November 5, 2012

The Election of 1912

A century ago today, an incumbent president was rejected by the voters.

That might be a bad omen for the incumbent president whose name is on tomorrow's ballot, but, unlike the incumbent who lost on this day in 1912, at least he doesn't have to run against a former president who is running as a third–party candidate.

(If, on the other hand, Barack Obama is re–elected tomorrow, that might open the door to another possible scenario that was suggested in print by Michael Barone the day after the third and final presidential debate two weeks ago. More on that a bit later.)

Presidential elections usually have several "third–party" candidates, but, typically, only the two major parties (which have varied in the last two centuries, but, since the time of Lincoln, the dominant parties in the United States have been the Democrats and Republicans) receive enough support to make them factors.

Most of the time, third parties are, at best, distractions — and magnets for disgruntled voters who like neither of the major–party nominees. But, occasionally, the third–party candidate wins a large share of the popular vote — and a few even manage to win a state or two.

There have been several times in U.S. history when an incumbent president was defeated in a bid for another term; obviously, such elections involve both a past and future president.

But once — and only once — a three–way race involved three credible candidates who had been — or would be — president. That was the election of 1912. Those voters went to the polls a century ago today.

The incumbent president was William Howard Taft, the hand–picked successor for Theodore Roosevelt, who did not run in 1908 because he had served nearly all of William McKinley's second term plus a full one of his own and honored a pledge he had made in 1904 not to seek another one.

Taft had been Roosevelt's secretary of War, and they had been close friends, but a rift developed between them during Taft's presidency and, by 1912, Roosevelt was the acknowledged leader of the progressive wing of the Republican Party while Taft was the leader of its conservative wing, setting the stage for a battle for the party's nomination in 1912.

Even before the presidential campaign, a deep divide within the Republican Party was clear when Republicans lost 10 Senate seats and 57 House seats in the 1910 midterm elections. The 1912 campaign for the Republican nomination merely put an exclamation point on it.

1912 was the first year that Republicans held presidential primaries, and Roosevelt was, by far, the more popular candidate among the Republicans' rank and file, winning nine of 12 primaries, most by wide margins.

But three–fourths of the state delegations were chosen in state party conventions run by the party's establishment, which strongly favored the status quo, and Taft, along with Vice President James Sherman, was renominated when Republicans convened in Chicago in June.

(Sherman's nomination wasn't the slam dunk that 21st century observers might assume. He was actually the first sitting vice president to be renominated in more than 80 years.)

Roosevelt and his followers held their own convention, and Roosevelt was nominated to run as the standard bearer for the new Progressive Party. When asked by reporters about his physical condition, the 53–year–old Roosevelt responded that he felt as strong as a "bull moose."

It was kind of an odd question, I suppose. I mean, since leaving the White House, Roosevelt had been on an African safari and had suffered no ill effects on it, but he had been stricken with malaria during the Spanish–American War so the question was relevant. From that point on, the new party was known as the Bull Moose Party.

All that sounds like a huge gift for the Democratic challenger, doesn't it? Well, since the Democrat eventually won the election, I suppose it was — except the nominee was not clear when Democrats convened in Baltimore at the end of June.

In those days, a simple majority of the delegates was not sufficient to win the Democratic nomination. The support of two–thirds was required, but no one could even get a majority until the ninth ballot.

In an ironic twist, the initial frontrunner, House Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri, was hurt when the infamous Tammany Hall political machine from New York backed his candidacy. Although it boosted Clark past the 50% mark on the ninth ballot, Tammany Hall's support had the reverse effect, earning the wrath of three–time nominee William Jennings Bryan, who had been officially neutral up to that time and was still the darling of the party's liberals despite having lost all three elections.

Denouncing Clark as the Wall Street candidate (that has a familiar sound to it, doesn't it?), Bryan threw his support behind New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson, a centrist, and Wilson gradually gained momentum, finally winning the support of enough delegates to claim the nomination on the 46th ballot.

Perhaps the greatest irony of that election year was the fact that Wilson, who had been finishing second to Clark in the previous ballots, was on the brink of withdrawing and releasing his delegates to vote for someone else when the schism between Bryan and Clark occurred.

If Wilson had given up a ballot or two earlier, Clark might have won the nomination — or Bryan might have boosted the candidacy of someone else.

And the course of American history would have been altered.

It was a different time, of course. There was no internet, no television, no radio to rapidly distribute images and information; news traveled long distances by telegraph. It was relatively early in the industrialization of the United States. The railroad had opened up the West, but the automobile was still new, and commercial air travel was still many years away.

Those who thrive in our instant information era would feel wholly out of place if they could be magically transported back 100 years.

It was, as I say, a different time. Titanic sank nearly seven months earlier — man flew to the moon and back half a dozen times before his technology permitted him to probe the ocean's depths and find Titanic's remains.

It was a different political time, too. It was, in the estimation of many, progressivism's plateau. A fourth candidate for the presidency, Socialist Eugene Debs, made his fourth run for the office and received 6% of the national vote — his highest share ever of the popular vote.

A labor organizer at heart, Debs had little interest in the American electoral system, and he spoke disparagingly of the so–called "Sewer Socialists" who had made political deals to win low–level elections.

The 1912 campaign would have been one for the books if only because three men who had been or would be president were on the ballot.

But there were other things about the 1912 campaign that were significant.

For one thing, Roosevelt was the target of an assassination attempt about three weeks before the voters went to the polls.

While campaigning in Milwaukee on Oct. 14, 1912, Roosevelt was shot by a former barkeeper from New York, John Schrank.

Schrank claimed to have been visited in a dream by McKinley's ghost, who had urged him to avenge his death and pointed to a picture of Roosevelt. He apparently had been stalking Roosevelt from New Orleans to Milwaukee, where he confronted and shot the former president in his chest at a hotel where Roosevelt was to deliver a speech.

Roosevelt was not killed. The bullet struck Roosevelt's steel eyeglasses case and a 50–page copy of his speech. The ex–president concluded that, because he was not coughing up blood, he was not seriously wounded, and he proceeded to deliver his speech (which took 90 minutes).

Roosevelt's diagnosis was confirmed later by doctors, who decided that it would be more dangerous to try to remove the bullet from his chest than to leave it where it was. Roosevelt carried the bullet inside his body the rest of his life.

An attempt to assassinate a presidential candidate has been rare in American politics. Only two men (Robert Kennedy and George Wallace) have been assassination targets in the last 100 years — and no major–party presidential candidate had been similarly attacked on the campaign trail before.

(Schrank was declared insane and was sent to the Central State Mental Hospital in 1914. He died there of natural causes in 1943.)

Another thing that made 1912 different was the death of Vice President Sherman.

Sherman suffered from kidney disease — in fact, he had delivered his renomination acceptance speech against his doctors' wishes — and he died at his New York home about a week before the election.

In America's history, half a dozen vice presidents had died in office before Sherman did — including Roosevelt's predecessor, Garret Hobart, in 1899 — but no incumbent vice president has died in the century that has passed since Sherman's death, not even Harry Truman's veep, Alben Barkley, who was elected when he was 70 years old.

So, by 21st–century standards, I suppose, it would have been shocking if, say, Vice President Joe Biden had dropped dead last week.

But voters in 1912 probably weren't too shocked. Vice presidents' deaths were more common than presidential deaths in the second half of the 19th century.

Sherman's death was unique, however, in that it left President Taft without a running mate a week before the election. The president of Columbia University, Nicholas M. Butler, was designated to take Sherman's place, but Sherman's name remained on the ballot.

In the long run, I guess, it didn't matter whose name was on the ballot. The Taft–Sherman ticket ran third and received the electoral votes of only Utah and Vermont. That was not attributable exclusively to Sherman's death, but it could not have helped Taft's cause to have such uncertainty about his running mate just days before the election.

Taft's loss, however, turned out to be the Supreme Court's gain, as Claude Marx observes at

And now, back to Mr. Barone's observation a couple of weeks ago.

In 2008, he noted, Obama "got a higher share of the popular vote than any other Democratic nominee in history except Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson."

But most political analysts, including Barone, are convinced that, if Obama is re–elected, it will be by a considerably narrower margin. Only one president in American history, Barone observed, was re–elected by a smaller margin than the one by which he was elected originally.

That would be Wilson, who was "re–elected in 1916 by 49 to 46 percent in popular votes and 277 to 254 in the Electoral College," Barone wrote.

"If California, which then had only 13 electoral votes, had not gone for Wilson by 3,773 votes," Barone continued, "the incumbent would have lost."

Barone pointed out that Obama has not been definite about his plans for a second term.

"Presidents who get re–elected," he wrote, "usually offer second–term agendas. Obama hasn't, especially on the economy. As a re–elected president, he will be as free of constraints as Wilson was."

Just one thing stands between Obama and that second term — tomorrow's election. (And, for the record, Barone doesn't believe Obama will be re–elected. But Larry Sabato does.)

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