1912 was a crazy election year, too

By | November 12, 2016

This presidential election has, to me, seemed… weird. However, I’m reminded of another odd, and significant, presidential election that might have been just as strange, and probably more so.

The presidential election of 1912 saw a breakaway third political party candidate do better than one of the two major party nominees (it was the last time that happened, by the way).

It also saw a fourth, extreme fringe, party candidate do OK and win the popular vote in a handful of counties throughout the United States, including one in our general area.

To boot, the 1912 election featured a former U.S. president running against a sitting U.S. president in the general election, both of who had belonged to the same political party until that year. Of local interest, Missouri almost saw a native son in the White House more than three decades before Harry Truman’s presidency.

The presidential political circus really started when former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt got his mustache ruffled by the policies of incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft. The two beefy gentlemen were personal friends, Taft having previously served as Roosevelt’s Secretary of War before Roosevelt supported him as his successor in 1908.

Yet they found themselves leading opposite wings of the Republican Party, Taft being more establishment conservative and Roosevelt more of a populist progressive. The ideological rift between the two factions had grown so deep by 1912 that Roosevelt broke a promise to not seek another term as president and put himself forward for the Republican nomination in place of the incumbent Taft.

Roosevelt was confident he would secure the nomination at the Republican National Convention that summer in Chicago. He didn’t. Roosevelt left the GOP convention in a righteous fury, crying fraud, and took his delegates with him. They hurriedly organized a separate convention and formed a brand new political party – the Progressive Party, nicknamed the “Bull Moose Party.”

Meanwhile, the the Democratic Party held its own convention in Baltimore the following week, though with considerably less drama. U.S. Speaker of the House Champ Clark of Missouri appeared to be the front-runner early on but ultimately lost the nomination to New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, after populist William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic presidential candidate, threw his support behind Wilson.

Add to the mix Socialist Party of America presidential candidate Eugene Debs, popular with recent immigrants and other blue collar elements of American society, and the election of 1912 was a true four-way race.

On top of it all, Taft’s vice-president and running mate, James Sherman, died in office less than a week before election day, leaving Taft alone on the ticket and adding more general confusion.

The end result was a predictable Democrat landslide. Wilson won 40 of the then 48 states by electoral vote, including Missouri. Roosevelt, leading the new Progressive (or “Bull Moose”) Party, carried six states, (Washington, California, South Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, and Pennsylvania).

Taft, the Republican incumbent, took only two states, Utah and Vermont. Debs, the Socialist Party candidate, didn’t win any electoral votes, but did garner six percent of the popular vote and won a majority of votes in four U.S. counties, including Crawford County, Kansas.

The national results affected the local down ticket races as well. Democrats took every Newton County office up for grabs that year, almost all of which had been held by Republicans. A rather amusing exchange took place between the editor of the local Republican newspaper, the Neosho “Miner & Mechanic,” and the editor of the Democratic newspaper, “The Neosho Times,” after the Miner & Mechanic urged that political partisanship not affect the appointment of the county engineer, which up to then was commonly understood as a political appointment under the spoils system.

The Times was having none of it, and pointed out the last three county engineers had all been Republicans, appointed by Republican county commissions (back then, the county commission was called the county court, and commissioners were known as judges).

I have many “what ifs” concerning the 1912 election that I won’t get in to. Near the top, though, is the matter of the United States entering World War I in 1917. True, war was declared by Congress at Wilson’s request (after he tried for years to keep America out of it) in Wilson’s second term in office, but there wouldn’t have been a second term if there wasn’t a first term.

I’m not sure what William Howard Taft would have done, but my personal guess is that the U.S. may have entered World War I much sooner under a Teddy Roosevelt presidency. It would have ultimately still been up to Congress, though, as stipulated by the U.S. Constitution.

As I’ve heard more than once over the past eight years, elections have consequences. They really do change the course of history.

The crazy election of 1912 proved that, I think.

By Wes Franklin

(Wes Franklin can be reached at (417) 658-8443.)

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