History has already taught us what happens when an elitist liberal, a populist, a constitutionalist and a socialist all run for president in a general election at the same time: The liberal wins. The 1912 presidential election offers a snapshot, albeit imperfect, of the GOP’s potential doom should the party splinter in the wake of a contested convention and produce a populist third party bid from Donald Trump.
As with all historical parallels, the comparison has its limitations. Donald Trump’s brand of populism is primarily focused on failed immigration policies and lopsided trade deals, while Theodore Roosevelt’s had more to do with busting trusts and ratcheting up federal regulations to protect factory workers. But there are enough similarities between the two elections to justify the analogy.
Republicans in 1912 certainly found their party in full-blown disarray reminiscent of the GOP’s current situation.
The battle between the two leading GOP candidates was often just as personal and nasty as the current contest where Cruz has called Trump a “sniveling coward” and Trump has made a habit of referring to Cruz as “Lyin’ Ted.”
Incumbent President William Howard Taft called challenger and former President Theodore Roosevelt “the greatest menace to our institutions that we have had in a long time.” Roosevelt alleged Taft was bought and paid for by “the forces of reaction and of political crookedness.”
The vitriol of the 2016 contest has set the stage for a possible division of the party come convention time of historic, 1912-esque proportions.
Citing large leads in the popular vote and primary state victories, front-runner Donald Trump has already laid the groundwork to paint any outcome in which he is denied the nomination as a rejection of the people’s will.
[lz_table title=”GOP Popular Votes and Contests Won 1912 to 2016″ note=”*Results for 2016 as of April 4″]1912,Contests Won,Vote percent
|2016,Contests Won,Vote Percent
With 17 states left to vote, Trump does already have a sizable lead in both popular votes and states won. Trump has taken 21 contests, racking up 7.9 million popular votes, while second-place Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has notched 9 wins and 5.8 million votes. Trump can claim a 37-to-27 percent lead as the democratic choice of the grassroots.
But in 1912 former President Theodore Roosevelt, running against incumbent President William Howard Taft and Wisconsin Sen. Robert M. La Follette, could claim an even more resounding mandate as the people’s choice to lead the Republican Party.
The nomination battle in 1912 was the very first in the GOP’s history to feature popular primaries to select delegates. Primaries were held in 13 states. Roosevelt dominated, winning nine of the contests to Taft’s two and pulling in 51.4 percent of the popular votes in the three-way fight.
By the end of the primary season, Roosevelt had gathered 64 percent of the delegates chosen under the new, more democratic system. The former president led the current president 290 delegates to 124, with long-shot LaFollette notching just 36.
[lz_infobox]Fun Fact: Both GOP candidates lost their home state. Roosevelt took Taft’s Ohio 55.3 to 39.5 percent and Taft routed Roosevelt in New York 66.4 to 33.6 percent.[/lz_infobox]
But Taft boasted a campaign apparatus far more organized than Roosevelt’s, and the backing of party elites, determined to prevent Roosevelt from staging a populist coup of the party. Sound familiar?
Cruz has proven to have the most advanced, most organized campaign apparatus from the start of the 2016 contest. The Texas senator’s ground game in Iowa was called revolutionary by political observers, and stories have circulated in recent weeks detailing how Cruz’s delegate operation is running circles around the Trump campaign.
That organizational prowess combined with the dogged determination of the GOP Establishment to stop Trump at any cost could well set the stage for Cruz to surpass Trump come convention time, despite the front-runner’s own claim to be the people’s true choice.
The GOP elites could, of course, try to resurrect the long-dormant smoke-filled room dealings of the past and negotiate a compromise candidate between the camps, but Trump is about as likely to support any option other than himself as was Roosevelt in 1912.
“I’ll name the compromise candidate. He’ll be me,” Roosevelt said when the idea of a third option percolated across the convention floor in Chicago, “I’ll name the compromise platform. It will be our platform.”
Should Cruz, backed by the full might of the GOP’s elite, be able to overcome Trump at a contested convention, as Taft did Roosevelt, there is no telling how Trump would react.
Trump has publicly distanced himself in just the last week from his previous commitment to support the nominee of the Republican Party, regardless of who wins the nomination. It does not seem far-fetched to imagine Trump following in the footsteps of Roosevelt should the convention turn against him.
When it became clear to Theodore Roosevelt that Taft and his allies had secured the upper hand at the GOP convention in 1912, the former president cried fraud and put out the word that his supporters should abandon the convention. Hundreds of delegates heeded the call of the populist champion and on June 22, 1912, abruptly left the Republican convention in Chicago, allowing the remaining delegates to easily nominate William Howard Taft.
The rebellious delegates reconvened in August to nominate Roosevelt at the helm of the newly formed Progressive Party. The new party nominated California Gov. Hiram Johnson to be Roosevelt’s running mate and the “Bull-Moose Party,” as it came to be known, lurched into the unknown of a three-way general election between two presidents and a liberal governor of New Jersey.
Then-New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson had ultimately won the Democratic nomination after a grueling primary season and convention in which ties to Wall Street were a major issue of contention. But unlike Hillary Clinton, it was Wilson who was the ultimate beneficiary of the intense Democratic distrust of big finance. Wilson finally locked up the nomination after 46 rounds of balloting when three-time party nominee William Jennings Bryan dropped his endorsement of Speaker of the House Champ Clark for being too cozy with Wall Street power brokers.
Elements even of what the three candidates in 1912 ran on mirror some aspects of the 2016 landscape.
Entering the general election, Roosevelt railed against the “stolen” GOP nomination and pushed an agenda he dubbed the “New Nationalism,” putting a priority on the welfare of the average American worker.
Wilson, an elitist intellectual who taught at Princeton, advocated slashing tariffs, the closest 1912 equivalent to modern free-trade agreements, and sought higher taxes.
Taft, the Cruz of the comparison, ran largely on a judicial platform. Whereas Cruz might run on the critical importance of the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy, Taft ran on a platform for the judiciary to have more influence and power in government.
Despite Wilson’s aloofness, the historic rupture of the Republican Party handed the New Jersey governor a massive landslide. Wilson took 435 electoral votes to second-place Roosevelt’s 88, and incumbent President Taft’s 8.
The electoral map in 2016 shares almost nothing in common with the landscape in 1912, but the resounding victory Wilson enjoyed in the electoral college points to the insurmountable climb Trump or Cruz would face if the party splinters out of Cleveland this July.
Even with the need for a third party breakup, divisions in the Republican Party could well lead to a Clinton landslide.
“Most important of all, the national Republican Party appears certain to remain deeply divided, whether Trump or Cruz is the nominee,” Larry Sabato, political science professor at the University of Virginia, said in a release Thursday that predicted a 347-to-191 Clinton route of Trump in the electoral college if the current situation holds.
“If the prize is taken from Trump via convention maneuvering … a sizable percentage of Trump voters could defect to a third-party ticket or sit out the election,” Sabato continued. “If Trump wins the Republican crown, we would also expect a considerable chunk of GOP voters to go elsewhere on the ballot, or go fishing entirely on Election Day.”
After a week in which not only Trump but Cruz and Kasich also walked back previous pledges to support the eventual nominee, they could all use a whack with the history stick, or else they risk handing the election to Secretary Clinton — just as Roosevelt and Taft offered up the election of 1912 to Woodrow Wilson.