Lessons from the 1912 Republican Convention: Birth of the Modern PrimaryWatch the video See the video and lesson plan
KATHLEEN DALTON (AUTHOR, THEODORE ROOSEVELT: A STRENUOUS LIFE): Primaries were new. Nobody knew how seriously they would be taken. It’s one thing to win a lot of primaries, it’s another thing to go and get the nomination.
THE MODERN PRIMARY: 1912
NELL IRVIN PAINTER (AUTHOR, STANDING AT ARMAGEDDON: A GRASSROOTS HISTORY OF THE PROGRESSIVE ERA): Theodore Roosevelt was the greatest sensation in American politics. People followed him, he was exciting, he was emphatic. Whatever Roosevelt did became a scene.
KATHLEEN DALTON: Since Abraham Lincoln there hadn’t been a President who really took the office and made it strong and effective. He was a breath of fresh air.
SIDNEY MILKIS (AUTHOR, THEODORE ROOSEVELT, THE PROGRESSIVE PARTY, AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY): The Industrial Revolution had hit the United States like a gale force. For the first time in American history, the enemy of freedom was not so clearly the government. Now it was private power concentrated in corporations. Roosevelt took the first steps to really reform the worst problems that had emerged.
KATHLEEN DALTON: In 1908 many people wanted T.R. to take another term. He had had part of McKinley’s term and his own term, and he decided that he didn’t want to violate the two term tradition.
SIDNEY MILKIS: I think as soon as he announced he regretted it. He handed the White House to one of his most loyal cabinet members, William Howard Taft, and went off to hunt in Africa. And that was fun for a while, but he began to get restless and he began to hear rumors that Taft was going weak, wasn’t a worthy successor.
KATHLEEN DALTON: Taft is pretty unpopular by 1912. He just can’t seem to hold the party together. People see T.R. as a savior, he is the most popular man in America.
SIDNEY MILKIS: Taft had the support of most of the party machinery. So Roosevelt’s only chance to get nominated by the Republican Party was through the primary. Because of the efforts of Roosevelt important states, Ohio, William Howard Taft’s home state, enact the primary.
GEOFFREY COWAN (AUTHOR, LET THE PEOPLE RULE: THEODORE ROOSEVELT AND THE BIRTH OF THE PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARY): It was the first time that people could directly participate, so all of a sudden they became so engaged and thousands of people showed up at rallies that the candidates would have.
KATHLEEN DALTON: Roosevelt could talk all day. He was pretty good at the whistle stop, and you go through 30 cities in a day.
SIDNEY MILKIS: There was this soap opera nature to it that also was very exciting. These guys had been best friends, and now they’re fighting against each other, calling each other names.
KATHLEEN DALTON: T.R. calls Taft a “puzzle-whit.” It was sort of an ugly friend-against-friend story.
SIDNEY MILKIS: Taft called Roosevelt a “honeyfugler.” And it took me a long time to find out what a honeyfugler means. The primaries were celebrated as a reform but people noticed right away that you risk a degeneration of a contest between two parties that stand for something to a cult of personality, to a personal battle where the candidates attack each other.
NELL IRVIN PAINTER: I would say that Roosevelt supported the primaries because he did so well in them.
KATHLEEN DALTON: Even though it was only 13 states out of 48 that had primaries, the Roosevelt camp would argue, ‘You let the people decide. And they want T.R.’
GEOFFREY COWAN: Roosevelt goes to the 1912 Republican Convention about 50 votes short of getting the nomination. So he runs a whole campaign to try to get those 50 delegates to change sides.
SIDNEY MILKIS: Up to this time the leading candidates did not attend the convention to respect the integrity of the parties, but before the convention, when Roosevelt heard how badly things were going, he could pace no longer. He jumped on a train and came to the convention to take command of his forces.
NELL IRVIN PAINTER: Just before the final reckoning, he gave this rousing talk including the immortal lines, “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.”
GEOFFREY COWAN: But the Republican establishment made the decision to nominate Taft, who they thought would almost certainly lose, because they wanted to retain control of the Republican Party.
SIDNEY MILKIS: Roosevelt tells his people to walk out, to refuse to vote in this fraudulent contest, and to leave the convention. They convened in a separate location, and there they hatched the plan to launch a third party: the Progressive Party.
NELL IRVIN PAINTER: People said, “Roosevelt, you’re too old for this. You’ve already been president, you can’t – ” He said, “I feel as strong as a bull moose.”
KATHLEEN DALTON: Theodore Roosevelt and the progressive party puts on the table the modern welfare state. It’s social security. It’s unemployment insurance. Old age pension. It’s a National Health Service, National Health Insurance, women’s Suffrage, workmen’s compensation, it’s the end of child labor.
NELL IRVIN PAINTER: And Roosevelt got a lot of votes, but he didn’t get enough. And poor old Taft came in third.
GEOFFREY COWAN: The presidential primary process is only about 100 years old. It keeps changing over time. The truth is that Roosevelt wanted presidential primaries for the same reason that most politicians want any political arrangement, and that is for his own self-interest. He was a politician, and politicians want things to work their way. We see the politicians saying the system is rigged. Well, it’s rigged as long as it isn’t working for them.