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Presidential Election of 1912: Candidates, Platforms & Significance

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  • 0:06 Backdrop of 1912 Election
  • 1:42 Candidates and Their Platforms
  • 5:07 Election Outcome and…
  • 6:27 Wilson's Accomplishments
  • 9:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Laurel Click

Laurel has taught social studies courses at the high school level and has a master's degree in history.

The presidential election of 1912 was a four-way race that brought out third party candidates and a former president. Learn about the candidates, their platforms and Woodrow Wilson's major accomplishments.

Backdrop of 1912 Election

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to coverage of the 1912 presidential election. It has been an interesting election year. Now it's November 5th, Election Day, and the votes are coming in. But first, let's recap some of the drama leading up to this point.

Theodore Roosevelt, former president of the United States, actually won most of the Republican primaries, even in President William Howard Taft's home state of Ohio. Despite Roosevelt's popular support, he was not able to overcome the power of Taft's supporters within the Republican Party. A group of Republicans refusing to support Taft's nomination at the Republican National Convention formed the Progressive Party and named Theodore Roosevelt as their candidate for president.

Last month, Roosevelt was shot at close range before he was to deliver a campaign speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The gunman failed to kill the former president because the force of the bullet was reduced by an eyeglasses case and a speech manuscript in the breast pocket of Roosevelt's overcoat. With the bullet still in his body, he told the crowd, 'You see, it takes more than one bullet to kill a bull moose.' Only after his speech was over did he go to the hospital. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the Progressive Party has become known as the 'Bull Moose Party.'

President Taft has also had a tough go of it as of late. Progressives within the Republican Party have opposed his conservative policies. To make matters worse, just last week, James Sherman, his vice president and running mate, passed away from a lengthy illness affecting his kidneys.

Candidates and Their Platforms

Now folks we are down to the wire. We have four candidates vying for the presidency. Let's take a closer look at these contenders and highlight some of their views.

First up is the incumbent Republican William Howard Taft. Taft has a solid antitrust record, using ninety lawsuits against the trusts during his time as president. Taft supports high import tariffs, limitations on child and female labor and workmen's compensation laws. He is against initiative, referendum and recall. Taft has promoted the idea that judges need to be more powerful than those elected to office.

Taft is determined to preserve the conservative heart of the Republican Party. He has campaigned quietly. Some say it's because he knows he has a slim chance of winning now that traditional Republican support has been split between the conservative Republican Party and the Progressive Party.

Challenging Taft for the presidency is Democrat Woodrow Wilson, hailing from South Carolina. Wilson was president of Princeton University and later developed a strong reform record as the governor of New Jersey. His platform consists of his 'New Freedom.' Wilson wants to implement antitrust legislation to eliminate monopolies, viewing big business as unfair and inefficient. Wilson feels that big business reduces opportunity for many ordinary Americans. He seeks an era of small government, small businesses and free competition. Wilson is also critical of organized labor, socialism and radical farmers. Wilson supports Progressive legislation, including tariff reduction, income tax reform, currency and credit reform.

Also throwing his hat into the ring is the Socialist Eugene V. Debs. Debs was a labor organizer and one of the most prominent socialists in the United States. Some members of the Socialist Party propose ending America's capitalist economic system and replacing it with a socialized economic system.

Debs advocates for public ownership of the railroads and utilities, no tariffs, a shortened work day, a minimum wage, a graduated income tax and a system of social insurance against unemployment and industrial accidents and death. Socialists also advocate for the election of the president and vice president by direct vote of the people. He maintains that the other political parties are financed by the large trusts. Unfortunately for Debs, most of the labor unions are supporting Wilson.

And last, but not least, the former President and Progressive 'Bull Moose' candidate, Theodore 'Teddy' Roosevelt. Roosevelt's platform formed around his New Nationalism principles, which include a broad range of social and political reforms, including a federal child labor law, federal workmen's compensation, regulation of labor relations and a minimum wage for women. The Progressive Party also advocates lower tariffs, initiative, referendum, recall, direct election of senators and direct primaries.

Roosevelt differentiates between good and bad trusts and claimed that big business must be strictly regulated in the public interest. He believes in the protection of workers and consumers and in environmental protection. The Progressive Party is the only party to advocate women's suffrage, or the right to vote, at the national level.

Election Outcome and Significance

Now ladies and gentlemen, it is time. The votes are in. Wilson and the Democrats have won with 435 electoral votes, Roosevelt and the Progressive 'Bull Moose' Party came in second with 88 electoral votes, while Taft and the Republican Party came in third with 8 electoral votes. Debs did not score any electoral votes, but he did manage to earn 6% of the popular vote, the highest proportion ever for the Socialist party. It is also quite clear that the split in the Republican Party has contributed to the Democrats' victory.

The 1912 election was significant for several reasons. It was the high point of the progressive movement in terms of progressive ideals and rhetoric at the national level. In this election, a third party candidate, Roosevelt of the Progressive Party, beat one of the two major party candidates, Taft of the Republican Party. Wilson's victory brought the Democrats back in power of the national government for the first time since before the Civil War. The Democrats gained both houses of Congress, as well as the presidency. The election also brought southern leadership and influence to the national government. In fact, five of Wilson's ten cabinet members were born in the South. William Jennings Bryan was made Secretary of State, and many Congressional committees were chaired by Southern legislators.

Wilson's Accomplishments

Let's now take a look at some of Woodrow Wilson's key accomplishments as president. While initially differing from Theodore Roosevelt on the direction of Progressivism, Wilson later advocated many of his ideas. He supported measures that expanded the role of the national government in regulating the economy. He confronted what he referred to as the 'triple wall of privilege:' the tariff, the banks and the trusts. Through Wilson's skillful leadership:

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