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Why TR Lost the Republican Nomination in 1912: What New Research Shows

As the battle between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama hurtles toward the Democratic National Convention in August, attention among historians often turns to celebrated national conventions of the past. In that line-up of contentious party gatherings, the events at the Chicago Coliseum between Theodore Roosevelt and the forces of President William Howard Taft in mid-June 1912 have achieved a special distinction. Yet, much of what is assumed to be true about this partisan encounter is melodramatic and over-simplified.

The contest between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft for the Republican presidential nomination culminated in one of the most tumultuous and controversial national conventions in all of the nation’s history. A key participant said of the scene in the Chicago Coliseum during those June days that for the Republicans “a parting of the ways was imminent” and so it proved. Taft won the nomination, Roosevelt bolted, and Democrat Woodrow Wilson gained the presidency. According to the main story line about this convention, a popular, progressive Roosevelt, eager to promote the New Nationalism, yielded to the public clamor for his selection and became a declared candidate for the GOP nomination during the winter of 1912. “My hat is in the ring,” he told a reporter. An inept, befuddled Taft, a pawn of party conservatives, faced down the Roosevelt challenge. The incumbent president did not do it with skill. He won in the end through parliamentary muscle and control of the party machinery.

By all rights, this narrative runs, Roosevelt should have been the Republican nominee. Outraged at having the prize snatched from his grasp by trickery and deceit, Roosevelt bolted, formed his third party, and insured Republican defeat. This story line owes much to the pioneering research of George E. Mowry in Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Movement (1946) which relied on the Theodore Roosevelt Papers as its main source.

The story has been compelling because much of it fits the facts. In its dramatic simplicity, however, it misses the dilemmas that the Republicans faced in 1912. By giving Roosevelt the sole starring role in the saga, it depicts the political loser as the winner, and thus understates Taft’s skill as a party politician. That Roosevelt made a series of mistakes and unwise decisions gets overlooked. It also leaves out the crucial contributions of Senator Robert M. La Follette to the ultimate triumph of the Republican conservatives. In a battle that foreshadowed the campaigning style of the future, Roosevelt and his allies missed chance after chance to seize control of the Grand Old Party. The consequences of their missteps would shape American politics for decades.

To understand how the Chicago convention turned out as it did, it is necessary to recognize the superior skill of President Taft in winning renomination. The portly chief executive is often portrayed as a genial boob, but in this case he grabbed the initiative from Roosevelt in mid-1911 and never lost it. His personal secretary, Charles D. Hilles, began rounding up delegate commitments within the GOP during the summer of 1911 and continued through a nationwide tour that Taft made in the autumn of that year. The two men also recognized the key role of the Republican National Committee and solidified Taft’s dominance of its membership in December. Their strategy emerges in the Hilles Papers at Yale University which, when opened in the 1960s, provided detailed evidence of Taft’s strategy. This crucial collection has, however, been little consulted by previous historians of this election.

Meanwhile, Roosevelt dithered. He could not decide whether to challenge Taft until late October 1911. During much of the year he assured friends he did not wish to run in 1912 but refused to endorse Taft for renomination. Keeping his options open fed the celebrity on which the former president depended. Had he come out for Taft the contest would have been over. But Roosevelt did not take any steps to prepare for a run for the nomination. As a result, he was always several steps behind the president and his organization when he did enter the race.

The other challenger was Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin. He too never fully committed himself to a run for the White House in 1911. Yet he he also saw himself, rather than Roosevelt, as the one true progressive in the contest. By early 1912, his candidacy had stalled because of his French-sounding name, his narrow regional base in the upper Midwest, and his radical views on government regulation. His disastrous appearance at the Newspaper Publishers Association banquet on February 2, 1912 where the senator berated a hostile audience for two hours enabled Roosevelt backers to leave his side and endorse their real favorite. La Follette, furious over these slights, vowed to remain a candidate to the end and frustrate Roosevelt. The La Follette Family Papers at the Library of Congress are indispensable for grasping the senator’s motives and destructive purpose toward Roosevelt.

By early 1912, Roosevelt had decided that he too should oppose Taft as a declared candidate. Since the Republican party faced defeat in the fall, some conservatives thought again about Roosevelt as an alternative to Taft. Where Taft had enforced the Sherman Antitrust Act, Roosevelt proposed an industrial commission to oversee large firms. That approach appealed to some on the right of the GOP. Then Roosevelt made the recall of judicial decisions the centerpiece of his appeal. Party regulars recoiled in dismay at the attack on the judiciary. Taft benefitted from this backlash against Roosevelt’s radicalism and his quest for a third term.

As Roosevelt began his campaign, he confronted a likely lead for Taft among pledged delegates and the perception that he could not defeat the president at the convention. To offset that impression, the Roosevelt forces contested the results of state conventions that selected Taft delegates, mainly in the South. Such a tactic enabled Roosevelt to survive the early defeats of February and March 1912 when the president built up a significant total of delegates. Newspaper accounts masked this result because so many of the states were listed as “contested.”

In April, as the Republicans turned to the few states that held primaries, Roosevelt won first in Illinois and again in Pennsylvania. The momentum seemed to move his way. He and Taft squared off in conservative, Republican-leaning Massachusetts where Taft eked out a narrow victory. Had Taft lost in that state, the rout for Roosevelt might have occurred. As it was, Roosevelt swept through the remaining primary states including Taft’s own state of Ohio.

When the delegate-hunting process ended, Roosevelt claimed 411 delegates of the 540 needed for nomination. Taft had 201 pledged delegates and claimed another 166 uninstructed delegates were really in his column. La Follette had 36 delegates and Albert B. Cummins of Iowa had 10. That left 254 contested delegates whose fate was in the hands of the Republican National Committee.

Meeting the week before the convention, the RNC allocated 235 of these delegates to Taft and 19 to Roosevelt, a result that seemed at the time and since to indicate a partisan bias in the work of the panel. As observers at the time noted, however, many of the cases that the Roosevelt supporters presented were flimsy and even the Roosevelt-leaning members of the Committee voted against these contests. Four states, Arizona, California, Texas, and Washington, presented a better case for Roosevelt’s claim of Taft’s “robbery” of delegates that the challenger deserved to have. What modern research has been done suggests that Roosevelt deserved 20 to 40 more delegates than he received from the committee. That would not have been enough to have given him the nomination. In fact, had the delegates been fairly allocated, neither Roosevelt nor Taft would have had a majority of the delegates at Chicago.

Faced with the adverse judgment of the National Committee, Roosevelt, who was in Chicago to lead his own fight, decided to contest the delegates awarded to Taft on the convention floor. He now believed that he had won these contests fair and square. What had started as a tactical decision to keep his candidacy viable in the winter had by late spring become an issue of theft and morality.

The first measure of strength came on the selection of the temporary chair of the convention. To win support from La Follette, Roosevelt backed the governor of Wisconsin, Francis McGovern. Had La Follette thrown his support to McGovern, the progressives might have gained dominance of the proceedings. Saying “we make no deals with Roosevelt, we make no trades with Taft,” La Follette’s manager rejected the McGovern candidacy. Instead, the Taft men by a vote of 558 to 501 chose Elihu Root, their candidate, in a defeat for the reformers. La Follette’s decision, which has not been much analyzed, marked a decisive setback for the progressives. The Wisconsin senator, as he so often did, put his personal pique ahead of the reform movement he professed to lead.

The next test vote came on a motion to seat the rejected Roosevelt delegates. That too lost and it became apparent that Taft would be re-nominated. Roosevelt told his followers to boycott the voting. They did so and Taft was selected on the first ballot. Roosevelt said it was time for those who followed him to choose “a Progressive on a Progressive platform.” In August 1912, the Progressive Party was born in Chicago. Roosevelt believed that a nomination he had won at the ballot box had been snatched from him in Chicago by “naked theft.”

In fact, Taft had mastered the rules by which the Republicans operated and exploited his advantage to the full. Roosevelt would have done the same thing in his place, and indeed had played the same kind of delegate hardball in 1908 when he stage-managed Taft’s first nomination. Roosevelt had entered the race late, never fully understood how the convention rules operated, and launched his candidacy on the vote-losing issue of judicial recall. Moreover, Roosevelt never thought through his situation. If he could not support Taft before the nomination race began, how could he expect to endorse him after a bitter fight for the Republican prize? A bolt was likely as soon as Roosevelt became a candidate. He expected to win because he had always won in the past. It never occurred to Roosevelt that he might lose. When it was clear that he would not prevail, he fell back on theft as the explanation for his defeat. In truth, Taft had out-stolen Roosevelt in the partisan battle that was the Republican delegate selection process in 1912.

The quest for Republican delegates in 1912, like so many other convention fights in American history, was a bare-knuckle affair. William Jennings Bryan was there to report on the proceedings and he summed up well what was going on. “A national convention is not the best place in the world to decide questions of abstract justice.” The election of 1912 and the battle between Roosevelt and Taft now can be seen in its complexity for the first time since the two men and their adherents squared off in the Chicago Coliseum ninety-six years ago.