Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015). A paperback edition is now available.
In 1912, a former president, loved by many, but also with many critics and detractors, decided to challenge the president who had succeeded him in the White House. Theodore Roosevelt challenged President William Howard Taft. While he won the support of a substantial number of Americans, he was unable to win the Republican presidential nomination. Irritated by the fact that the Republican convention favored Taft, Roosevelt decided to challenge him by running on a third party line, the “Bull Moose” Progressive Party, staying in the race all the way to election day in November. At the end, Roosevelt ended up in second place with 27.5 percent of the national popular vote, winning 6 states in the Electoral College and 88 electoral votes, the best-ever performance of a third party in American history. The incumbent Republican president ended up in third place, the only time a major political party has not ended up either winning or being in second place in the election results.
Now, in the upcoming presidential election of 2024, we have a situation that, while different, could potentially mirror what happened in 1912. The current Democratic president, Joe Biden, defeated the former president, Donald Trump. Trump refused to accept defeat and incited the Capitol Insurrection on January 6, 2021. Even now in early 2023, as Donald Trump faces investigations that could lead to his indictment for inciting the tragic events at the US Capitol or financial transgressions related to the payment of hush money to Stormy Daniels, he is seeking the Republican nomination. In theory, he could continue to run even if indicted, a scenario that has never been conceived before the present moment.
A whole group of Republican challengers is likely, as many as a dozen, and a bloodbath of accusations and character assassination between Trump and his Republican opponents seems certain to occur over the next fifteen months. Although Trump would be regarded as the favorite, a challenger, most likely Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, could win the nomination if a knock down, drag out primary fight sufficiently divides the conservative base. But if that happened, many Congressional Republicans, along with a possible contingent of 30-35 percent of Republican voters might refuse to abandon Trump, even if he lost the nomination at the Republican National Convention.
Donald Trump has already suggested that he might form a third party. Such an event would split the Republican Party down the middle and would give a great advantage to the Democratic Party and its likely nominee, President Joe Biden. In 1912, the Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson was able to sweep all but eight states in an Electoral College landslide despite only winning 42 percent of the national popular vote.
As a third party candidate, Trump would have an excellent chance to win such states as Alabama (9 electoral votes), Mississippi (6), Louisiana (8), Arkansas (6), Tennessee (11), Kentucky (8), West Virginia (4), Oklahoma (7), Utah (6), Montana (4), Idaho (4), Wyoming ((3), and Alaska (3). This would be a total of 13 states and 79 electoral votes, rivaling what Theodore Roosevelt accomplished in 1912. Ron DeSantis, or whoever the Republican nominee might be, could end up losing such supposedly red states as Florida to the Democratic nominee, since both Trump and DeSantis are from the Sunshine State. But even Texas, along with South Carolina, Ohio, or Missouri—likely Republican states if the party was united—could be lost to the Democratic nominee due to the party split. And battleground states, including Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Arizona could all end up in the Democratic column for Biden or an alternative Democratic presidential nominee.
Trump could win at least the same 27.5 percent of the popular vote that Theodore Roosevelt won in 1912, and possibly more, and could come close to the number of electoral votes Roosevelt won. The Republican nominee could, therefore, end up gaining a lower percentage of the national popular vote than any Republican nominee since President Taft won 23 percent of the vote in 1912 (while winning only two states and 8 electoral votes).
What occurred in 1912 was a boon to the Democratic Party and extended the progressive movement at the time. Similar outcomes in 2024 could, once again, help the Democrats keep the White House in their hands, and lead to the advancement of more progressive goals with a stronger base in both the House of Representatives and US Senate. The conservative philosophy so prevalent in the Republican Party could be decimated and have great difficulty returning to power, at least in the near term.
But of course, there are so many competing factors in any presidential election cycle, including the issue of economic conditions and foreign policy events influencing the outcome. So there will be no lack of personalities and issues determining the future of American democracy as the nation nears the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026.