Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Party, 1912

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This 1932 map from the Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States illustrates the impact of Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party campaign on the 1912 election in contrast to the overwhelmingly two-party results of the 1908 election. Courtesy of David Rumsey.

After seven years as US president from 1901 to 1908, Republican Theodore Roosevelt decided to re-enter the race for the presidency in 1912 to challenge his successor, William Taft. When he failed to secure the Republican nomination, Roosevelt formed the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party and ran for president on its ticket. The Progressive Party advocated a broad reform platform, including farm relief, social insurance, limits on campaign contributions, and an eight-hour workday. In 1912, Roosevelt also became the first presidential candidate to formally endorse women’s suffrage and advocate for women’s participation in Progressive Party organizing. By the 1912 election, women had equal suffrage to men in six states and constituted 1.3 million voters. Through both organizing and voting, they formed an important part of the Progressive Party’s success in the 1912 election.

Throughout the election, Roosevelt and the Progressives challenged the success of Republican incumbent William Taft’s campaign, and created a race in which Roosevelt was perceived as the primary challenge to Democratic nominee Woodrow Wilson. Despite an assassination attempt in October 1912, Roosevelt campaigned to the end. Wilson won the election, while Taft achieved only 23% of the popular vote and eight electoral votes. Roosevelt earned 27% of the popular vote and eighty-eight electoral votes (including states like California and Washington that had passed women’s suffrage legislation), making him the most successful third-party candidate in US history.