By 1912, progressive ideals had made inroads in both major political parties. Progressives believed that the federal government should heavily involve itself in the betterment of society and public welfare. In 1912, these ideals split the Republican Party between the old guard represented by the incumbent William Howard Taft and the progressives, led by former president and third-party candidate Theodore Roosevelt. This split enabled the Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson to win the 1912 election.

Theodore Roosevelt

As governor of New York, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) troubled Republican Party bosses due to his support of progressive reform. A war hero who enjoyed great popular support, he could not simply be dropped from the party. To rein him in, they nominated him as William McKinley’s running mate in the 1900 presidential election. However, Roosevelt became president after McKinley’s assassination in 1901. He then won a second term in 1904. William Howard Taft (1857-1930) served Roosevelt in several capacities, notably as his secretary of war, and the latter hand-picked Taft as his successor to run in the 1908 presidential election.

Taft and Roosevelt

Roosevelt believed that Taft could walk a fine line between continuing progressive policies and yet appeal to the old-guard Republicans. In the end, Taft pleased the conservatives more than the progressives, and Roosevelt became very dissatisfied. The situation was exacerbated as Roosevelt voiced increasingly more progressive views during the Taft administration. He alarmed conservatives while giving a speech in 1910 labeled the “New Nationalism,” in which he argued that the president is the “steward of the public welfare.” Although Roosevelt and Taft greatly admired each other, their friendship would eventually become a casualty of the widening gap in the Republican Party. Roosevelt decided to challenge his onetime protege for the party's nomination in the 1912 presidential election.

The Bull Moose Party

Roosevelt hoped to defeat Taft at the 1912 Republican convention in Chicago and ride his popularity to another term as president. However, the party chose Taft in spite of Roosevelt’s popularity. Roosevelt saw no choice but to leave the party and form a third party representing progressive interests, the Progressive Party, nicknamed the Bull Moose Party. Roosevelt held another convention later that year to announce his candidacy for president as head of the new political organization. The new party’s platform was even more progressive than Roosevelt’s presidency prior to the Taft administration. Support for the new party was boosted by Roosevelt’s popularity.

Woodrow Wilson and Victory

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) represented the Democratic Party in the 1912 election. As a former president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey, Wilson became recognized as a leader for progressive change in America. He advocated for the poor and for more government regulation of big business, and Wilson’s popularity earned him the Democratic nomination in 1912. Due to the split in the Republican Party, and because voters viewed him as a more moderate progressive than Roosevelt, Wilson won the election, with 41.8 percent of the popular vote and an overwhelming 81.9 percent of electoral votes. Roosevelt finished second with 27.4 percent of the popular vote -- the most impressive showing ever by a third party in a presidential election. Taft garnered 23.2 percent of the popular vote, and carried a mere two states.