By Cliff McCarthy
After the clamor and hyperbole of the 2012 presidential election abates, we cannot help but be drawn to the past for comparison, or at least perspective, on our quadrennial media orgy. What a difference a century makes.
Campaigning was different in 1912, when the nation experienced one of its wildest and most bizarre presidential elections. That was the year that former President Teddy Roosevelt broke with the Republican Party, which he claimed had been taken over by a conservative faction, and sought election under the new Progressive Party banner. Proclaiming himself as healthy as a “bull moose,” TR vigorously stumped around the country, giving speeches from the caboose of a campaign train. He called for stronger federal regulation of the economy and lambasted irresponsible corporate greed. In Milwaukee on October 14, he was shot by a local saloonkeeper, the bullet lodging in his chest after penetrating his steel eyeglass case and a folded copy of his speech. He gave the speech, then went to the hospital.
His rival, the rotund William H. Taft, disdained campaigning. His strategy was to rely on the stature of his office and the Republican machine to deliver the necessary votes, while leading from the White House — the first “Rose Garden campaign.” It may have been an omen when his running-mate, Vice-President James S. Sherman, died less than a week before the election.
The beneficiary of the Republicans’ turmoil was the Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson, whose “New Freedom” campaign highlighted individualism and a less powerful federal government. At that time, only one Democrat had won the presidency in the previous half-century.
Adding to the mix, Eugene V. Debs ran a credible fourth party campaign on the Socialist Party ticket, winning nearly a million votes nationwide — 6% of the popular vote — having spent a total of $66,000 on his campaign. And there was even a Prohibition Party candidate.
However wild the campaign was, the result was predictable. Roosevelt effectively split the Republican vote, throwing the election to Woodrow Wilson in an electoral college landslide. Roosevelt became the only third-party candidate to beat a mainstream candidate, Taft, in the electoral count.
Massachusetts went Democratic that year, supporting Wilson and Eugene Foss as Governor. However, the staunchly Republican counties of the Pioneer Valley bucked the trend: Franklin and Hampshire went for Taft, while Wilson won Hampden by just thirty-five votes.