William Taft: Campaigns and Elections

William Taft: Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1908:

After his 1904 electoral victory, Theodore Roosevelt promised publicly not to seek the presidency again in 1908. While he later regretted that decision, he felt bound by it and vigorously promoted William Howard Taft as his successor. Both Nellie Taft and Roosevelt had to persuade Taft to make the race. Even with the presidency in his reach, Taft much preferred the U.S. Supreme Court chief justice appointment.

It was generally expected that Taft would be Roosevelt's man in the White House, and Taft himself vowed to continue Roosevelt's progressive policies. Still, up to the last minute before Taft's nomination at the Republican Party convention in Chicago, Nellie Taft feared that Roosevelt might announce his bid for a second elected term. It almost happened on the second day of the convention, when a spontaneous and wild demonstration produced a forty-nine minute stampede for Roosevelt—the longest-lasting demonstration that had ever occurred at a national political convention. Only when Roosevelt sent word via Senator Henry Cabot Lodge that he was not available did the convention nominate Taft on the first ballot. The final count gave Taft 702 votes (491 votes were needed to win) in a field of seven nominees. The Democrats once again nominated William Jennings Bryan, the twice-defeated candidate who still personified the populist politics of the Democratic Party and the moral fervor of its "silverite" wing.

At Nellie's urging, Taft announced that he intended to drop thirty pounds off his 300 pound plus weight for the campaign fight ahead. He retreated to the golf course at a resort in Hot Springs, Virginia, where he stayed for much of the next three months. His campaign, once it started, depended heavily upon Roosevelt for speechmaking, advice, and energy. Journalists bombarded the public with jokes about Taft being a substitute for Roosevelt. One columnist explained that T.A.F.T. stood for "Take Advice From Theodore." Nothing could hide Taft's dislike for campaigning and politics. His handlers tried to turn his sluggish style into a positive asset by describing Taft as a new kind of politician—one who refuses to say anything negative about his opponent. For most voters it was enough, however, that Taft had pledged to carry on Roosevelt's policies. His victory was overwhelming. He carried all but three states outside the Democratic Solid South and won 321 electoral votes to Bryan's 162. In the final tally for the popular vote, Taft won 7,675,320 (51.6 percent) to Bryan's 6,412,294 (43.1 percent). Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs won just 2.8 percent of the popular vote, or 420,793.

The Campaign and Election of 1912

After four years in the White House, Taft agreed to run for a second term, principally because he felt compelled to defend himself against Roosevelt's attacks on him as a traitor to reform. The former friends and allies had become bitter opponents. Roosevelt saw Taft as betraying his promise to advance Roosevelt's agenda. He was especially bitter over Taft's antitrust policy, which had targeted one of Roosevelt's personally sanctioned "Good Trusts," U.S. Steel. The former President also felt personally betrayed by Taft's firing of Gifford Pinchot, head of the U.S. forest service and Roosevelt's old friend and conservation policy ally. Certain that Taft would take the party down with him in 1912, Roosevelt was determined to replace him as the 1912 Republican candidate.

After his return to America in 1910 from a big game hunting safari in Africa and a European tour, Roosevelt began to criticize Taft obliquely in speeches which sketched out his "New Nationalism" policies. He argued for the elimination of special interests from politics, direct primaries, and graduated income and inheritance taxes. Roosevelt's platform also advocated a downward revision of the tariff schedule, open publicity about corporate business practices and decisions, and laws prohibiting the use of corporate funds in politics. Additionally, he supported the initiative and referendum process, as well as the conservation and use of national resources to benefit all the people. In contrast to what would become Woodrow Wilson's 1912 political agenda, New Nationalism promised active government supervision and regulation of giant corporations rather than their dissolution. Monopolies would be made to operate in the public interest rather than solely in the interest of their stockholders. Taft considered Roosevelt's ideas hopelessly radical and listened to his conservative supporters—and especially his wife—who vilified Roosevelt as a man bent on destroying the nation and the President.

In the year before the Republican convention, Roosevelt attacked Taft mercilessly and at every opportunity. Several states had established direct primaries, which allowed the people to vote their opinion on a preference ballot for party candidates (though in most of those states, the convention delegates would still be selected by party leaders). By 1912, thirteen states had primary laws: South Dakota, Wisconsin, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, Illinois, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio. Roosevelt's no-holds-barred attack on Taft finally reached a sore point when the former President spoke in favor of the popular recall of judges and judicial decisions on constitutional questions. Taft responded in a speech on April 25, 1912, declaring that a Roosevelt victory would institute a reign of terror similar to that following the French Revolution. Thereafter, the fight became a free-for-all, with Taft hitting back at Roosevelt constantly. The resulting campaign to win the Republican nomination was the first in which a sitting President campaigned in state primaries.

The primary elections showed Roosevelt to be the people's clear choice. Senator Robert LaFollette won North Dakota and Wisconsin while Taft carried New York. Roosevelt, however, carried all other primaries. When the convention opened in Chicago on June 7, Roosevelt had 271 delegates pledged to him compared to Taft's 71—just 80 votes short of a majority. Taft's major advantage as President then came into play: his control of federal patronage. Consequently, he was able to hold the delegates from southern states. In addition, he controlled the Republican National Committee, which decided on any challenges of delegates from the primaries. Most of the states sent two sets of delegates to the convention, and the Republican National Committee—dominated by Taft Republicans—seated all but a few of the Taft-pledged delegates. Three days of confusion followed on the convention floor. The party bosses handed the nomination to Taft with 561 votes to Roosevelt's 187. Forty-one delegate votes were cast for Senator LaFollette.

Having lost the nomination, Roosevelt led his followers out of the convention and formed the Progressive Party. It was quickly nicknamed the Bull Moose Party, in honor of Roosevelt's comparison of himself to a raging bull moose ready for a fight. The new party nominated Roosevelt as its presidential candidate on August 6 in the Chicago Coliseum. The progressive governor of California, Hiram Johnson, was selected as Roosevelt's running mate.

Sensing victory because of the Republican fratricide, the Democrats, nearly delirious with confidence over the mess in the Republican Party, had nominated Woodrow Wilson, the progressive governor of New Jersey, on the forty-third ballot at their convention in Baltimore. They pegged Indiana Governor Thomas Marshall as his running mate. In the campaign that followed, Taft became more conservative as he ran against two challengers, both identified as progressives. In the face of strong criticism from the challengers, Taft tended to retreat to the golf links where he hid away from the public. Understanding that Taft had essentially given up the fight, Roosevelt and Wilson slugged it out in the popular media. Wilson presented his "New Freedom" ideas, which were similar to Roosevelt's "New Nationalism," except that Wilson favored the dismantling of all giant monopolies. Roosevelt visited thirty-four states and won significant public sympathy from a bravura act following an assassin's attack in Milwaukee. After being shot in the chest, the healthy "bull moose" survived to make a scheduled campaign appearance. The bullet had entered his chest but had been deflected from its full force by a fifty page speech in Roosevelt's coat pocket.

On election day, Wilson beat the split Republicans decisively in the Electoral College. Taft carried only two minor states, Utah and Vermont. Wilson compiled 435 electoral votes to 88 for Roosevelt and 8 for Taft. Gauging from the election results, had the Republicans united behind Roosevelt, he probably would have won the election in view of the fact that Taft and Roosevelt won a larger combined popular vote than Wilson. Moreover, when the Roosevelt, Wilson, and Debs votes are combined, the election of 1912 represents a stunning victory for progressivism, or reform, at the national level. Taft's policies had been decisively repudiated by the end of his term.