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The Fourth Candidate

The 1912 Presidential contest included the incumbent President, his predecessor, and his successor.  There was also a fourth candidate.  He received no Electoral votes, but he did receive a significant number of popular votes.  Although he finished fourth overall, he came in third in Arizona, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.  He finished a distant second in Florida.  Except for Oklahoma, in each of these states he received more votes than the incumbent President.  His name was Eugene V. Debs, and he was the Socialist Party candidate.

The Socialist Party platform of 1912 called for women’s suffrage, a minimum wage, and unemployment insurance.  It promoted the collective ownership of railroads and industry.  It also sought to change the U.S. Constitution in order to eliminate the Senate and to stop the Supreme Court from ruling on the constitutionality of legislation.

Debs had already run for President in 1900, 1904, and 1908.  He did not run for President in 1916, but rather sought a Congressional seat from Indiana.  Once again he was not elected.  In 1918, after making a speech opposing the military draft, he was arrested and convicted for violating the Sedition Act of 1918.

Debs ran for President from prison in 1920.  Shortly after the election Congress repealed the Sedition Act.  President Wilson had no sympathy for Debs, but in 1921 President Harding commuted Debs’s sentence to time served.  Debs never ran for President again.


A Disastrous Speech

Some say it was due to a stomach virus.  According to Kansas newspaperman William Allen White, the disastrous speech was due to a number of circumstances.

“…he came to Philadelphia, where the convention was held, dead tired, dog tired (sic) after a terrible day’s work in the Senate.  He never spared himself.  His place was late on the program.  It was after ten at night when the toastmaster came to him.  Just before he rose to speak, his secretary told me, he took a great gobletful of whiskey and swallowed it neat.  He was not a drinking man.  But, his secretary said, sometimes, to stoke up his machine, he used any stimulant that might be at hand…”

The Senator was a man in his late fifties.  He had pushed himself before with great success.  Surely this time would be no different.

“He had his manuscript that night at the dinner, and for ten minutes or so, perhaps twenty, he read along fluently and well.”

Then something happened.

“…he put down his manuscript for a moment to emphasize a point… When he picked up his manuscript he had lost his place… Then he laid it down again, and the second time he departed from his manuscript he began to lose control of his temper… For nearly two hours… he raged on and on, saying the same things over and over at the top of his voice.  It was a terrible spectacle.”

The speech was given on February 2, 1912.  From that day forward the Senator’s prospects for the Presidential nomination dimmed.  Historians have often listed La Follette as one of the greatest U.S. Senators of all time, but like so many others on that list, he never became President.

The Logical Choice

After the Republicans lost the Houses of Representatives in the 1910 election, the progressive wing of the party concluded that President Taft was not the man to lead them to victory in 1912.  They met on June 21, 1911 and formed the National Progressive Republican League.  Among those present was Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette.  His Washington home was the venue for this initial meeting.  At a Chicago conference in October he was named by this group as “the logical candidate for the presidency” in 1912.

President Taft had alienated the progressives, and former President Theodore Roosevelt had too often compromised with big business to suit La Follette.  Besides, when Roosevelt was elected in 1904, he had promised not to run again.  Not running again pertained not just to 1908 but to 1912 and beyond.  La Follette was well-known as a fighter for progressive causes.  He supported direct election of U.S. Senators, women’s suffrage, and the minimum wage.  Everything he did was aimed at giving the people a greater voice at all levels of government.  In many ways he was indeed the logical choice for President.

Things were going his way despite whispers that Roosevelt might challenge Taft in the primaries.  Then, on February 2, 1912, after a long day, La Follette gave a speech which proved disastrous to his campaign.


Champ Clark

James Beauchamp Clark was born in Kentucky in 1850.  Except for a one-term hiatus in the mid- 1890’s, he had been a Congressman from Missouri for almost 20 years and had been elected Speaker of the House in 1911.  Regarding his nickname, he once said “that a man had as much right to cut off part of his Christian name as to trim off part of his hair.”  Perhaps he thought “James Beauchamp” sounded too pretentious.  “I sprang from the loins of the common people, God bless them, and I am one of them,” was his boast.  In any case, the prospective voter who saw “Champ” Clark’s name on a poster or on the ballot would have no trouble with the pronunciation.

At the 1912 Democratic Convention, Champ Clark led Woodrow Wilson on the first 29 ballots.  He temporarily captured a majority of the delegates on the 10th through 17th ballots, but in 1912 a simple majority was not enough to win the Democratic nomination for President.  The Party required its nominees to have two-thirds.  This was not accomplished until Wilson overtook Clark on the 46th ballot.

William Jennings Bryan, the “Great Commoner” who had been the Democratic nominee in 1908, should have been Clark’s natural ally, but Bryan was still upset over Clark’s handling of tariff legislation.  Also, Clark’s Eastern supporters were just the sort of people Bryan had been railing against since 1896.  When Bryan threw his support to Wilson, Clark’s defeat became inevitable.

Professor and Politician

Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia and spent most of his formative years in Augusta, Georgia and Columbia, South Carolina.  He was President of Princeton University from 1902-1910.  He had always hoped to become a U.S. Senator from Virginia, but his first political office was governor of New Jersey.  When he was about halfway through his term as governor,  he became the Presidential nominee of the Democratic Party in 1912.

Wilson had written several books on politics and government.  In a popular American history text he displayed obvious prejudice against Eastern and Southern Europeans, referring to them as “men of the lower class from the South of Italy and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland, men out of the ranks where there was neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence.”

Initially, this was a problem for Wilson.  When confronted, Wilson said what most politicians would say: that he had been taken out of context.  “My history was written on so condensed a scale that I am only too well aware that passages such as you [a Polish immigrant leader] quote are open to misconstruction, though I think their meaning is plain when they are fairly scrutinized.”

When confronted with his own words, Wilson gave a less than adequate answer.  Meanwhile, Speaker Champ Clark was amassing delegates for the national convention.

The Primaries Predict a Problem

In 1912, Presidential primary elections were a relatively new thing, and the winner did not necessarily get that state’s delegates at the national party convention.  Political bosses had no desire to share power with the populace, but they did sometimes want to understand public sentiment.  For that reason, they were willing to tolerate a little innovation.

In 1912 only 14 of the 48 states had Presidential primaries, and many of these were nonbinding.  Since the Republicans did not have primaries in Florida or Georgia, former President Theodore Roosevelt entered only 12 primaries.  Senator La Follette of Wisconsin won two, President Taft won only one, and Roosevelt won nine, but that did not matter to the men who controlled the Republican National Convention.  On June 22 Taft was nominated to serve a second term.

The twelve primary states were California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.  In the general election, Taft would win none of these states.  He would place second in his native state of Ohio and in Massachusetts, the only state whose primary he had won.  In seven of these primary states he would come in third in the general election.  In California he would be a very distant fourth, trailing even the Socialist candidate by a wide margin.  In South Dakota, Taft was not even on the ballot for the general election.

Taft lost the Electoral vote in 46 of the 48 states.  He might have done better in a two-way race with the Democratic candidate, but he probably would have lost anyway.  But before we can give the details of Taft’s 1912 defeat, we must discuss the other candidates and their backgrounds.







Theodore Weighs the Odds

Former Interior Secretary James R. Garfield wanted to run for governor of Ohio in 1910, but he withdrew from the race when the state convention endorsed the Taft Administration.  Normally, association with Taft would have been a plus.  Taft was a fellow Republican from Ohio.  He had been President Theodore Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor in 1908, but by 1910 he had managed to offend the former President.  If Garfield accepted the nomination for governor and then won the general election, he would be expected to support Taft in 1912.  This he would not do.  The party nominated former Lieutenant Governor Warren G. Harding instead.  Harding then lost to the Democratic incumbent.

Garfield was offended by Taft’s dismissal of Gifford Pinchot from the U.S. Forest Service.  Garfield, Pinchot and many others wished that Roosevelt would challenge Taft for the presidential nomination in 1912.  By late 1911 Roosevelt was giving their wish serious consideration.

Up to this time President Grant was the only Republican to serve two full terms.  When he tried to run for a third nonconsecutive term, he failed to get the nomination even though there was no incumbent in that race.  Although Roosevelt was still very popular with the people, the default position of the Republican National Convention would be to support Taft.  Roosevelt’s 1912 challenge would be even less likely to succeed than that of Grant in 1880.

However, Roosevelt could demonstrate his continuing worth by winning primary elections.  Surely the Republican National Convention would respect the demonstrated will of the people, wouldn’t they?