When: June 18-22, 1912
Nominee: President William Taft
Nominating a sitting president for another term in office is usually a simple affair — more of a coronation than anything else. Various bigwigs extol the virtues of the incumbent, at length and without pause, while delegates wander aimlessly up and down the aisles.
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The 1912 Republican National Convention was not that kind of gathering.
The incumbent in question was President William Howard Taft, the corpulent scion of a prominent Ohio family who had benefited greatly from powerful friends throughout his public career. He was a reporter, a judge and eventually the governor-general of the Philippines, where he served with some distinction.
No friend was more important to Taft than Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt grew quite close to Taft during his own time as president and made Taft his secretary of war. In 1908, Roosevelt hand-picked Taft as his presidential successor and campaigned for him.
But the friendship was complicated and began to sour almost as soon as Taft took the oath of office. Roosevelt believed Taft was insufficiently committed to a progressive agenda and lacked muscularity in his approach to executive power. Taft, he knew, had been a reluctant candidate in 1908.
In truth, the political estrangement between the two men was more Roosevelt’s fault than Taft’s.
Roosevelt deeply missed the public attention that came with being president. But he had also turned sharply to the left since leaving office, advocating an approach to government that would make Sen. Bernie Sanders blush.
“We must drive the special interests out of politics,” Roosevelt thundered in 1910 in Osawatomie, Kan., before launching into a brutal attack on corporations and inherited wealth. He made similar statements in other speeches.
Taft was more moderate, infuriating Roosevelt. In February 1912, Roosevelt told the nation he would accept the Republican nomination if offered, and he began to campaign openly against his old friend, the president.
Roosevelt was more popular than Taft, but in 1912 it wasn’t clear if that popularity could be turned into delegate votes at the national convention. Only a handful of states held what were then called “direct primaries” — the other states left the nominating choice to political power-brokers.
Taft’s political organization controlled many of those states, and he won most of the pledged delegates in them. But Roosevelt rolled up votes in primary states, leaving each candidate short of the number needed to prevail on the first ballot in Chicago.
The close contest caused problems that spring. Violence had marred GOP conventions in several states, and the threat of bloodshed hung over the Chicago gathering. There was another complicating factor: Sen. Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, also a progressive Republican, had his eyes on the White House as well.
The result was a furious battle over delegate qualifications and credentials. Over three days, strategists for all three men roamed the floors and hallways, pressuring delegates for votes as newspaper reporters telegraphed the latest news to anxious editors across the country.
La Follette’s bid quickly faded, but Taft and Roosevelt were another story.
Critically, Taft’s men controlled the convention’s credentials committee — the group that would decide which delegates could cast legitimate votes on the convention floor. On June 21, the committee voted repeatedly to seat Taft-friendly delegates from disputed states, a clear signal to wavering delegates to join the Taft bandwagon before it was too late.
At that point, the Roosevelt forces knew they would likely lose on the first ballot. But they had a final card to play: a third-party candidacy.
As the convention outcome became clear, a Kansas delegate rose to read a letter from the former president. A Taft nomination wouldn’t represent the “real” Republican party, the letter said. Roosevelt delegates should walk away.
In her book “The Bully Pulpit,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin describes what happened next.
“Roosevelt’s inflammatory words provoked a near riot on the convention floor,” she writes. “Taft delegates physically attacked Roosevelt delegates; brawls erupted throughout the galleries. Although police stopped dozens of scuffles, they were unable ‘to keep track of them all.’ ”
When order was eventually restored, Taft won the nomination on the first ballot. Roosevelt was out.
But the victory was less than it seemed. Some Roosevelt delegates walked down the street to launch the Progressive Party, later widely known as the Bull Moose party. Roosevelt would be its first nominee, a choice ratified later that summer.
Roosevelt ran on a platform today’s progressives might admire: a “living wage,” social insurance for the elderly, national control of some corporations. But he split the popular vote with Taft that fall, and Woodrow Wilson — a Democrat — was elected president. Taft finished third, behind Roosevelt.
It would be two decades before a different Roosevelt would propose a similar approach to economic calamity.
That Roosevelt would win, four times in a row.