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"Sing brothers, sing". Bradley, L. D. 1912. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

New York’s 1912 Republican Presidential Primary

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The following is a guest post by Writer-Editor at the Law Library of Congress, Peter Quinn

“Hon. Theodore Roosevelt,” the letter to the former president began. “You may already know that I went to the Rochester State Convention held on April 9, 1912, as a delegate from this County and undoubtedly you are familiar with the proceedings had at said Convention,” Nassau County, New York, Republican Committee Chairman Lewis J. Smith wrote.

Smith and many other delegates believed that they would be able to register their opposition to the party platform in a roll call vote, in which each delegate is called by name to respond, and that person’s “aye” or “nay” vote is recorded individually. Instead, a voice vote was taken, in which the presiding officer declared which side constituted the majority by his estimation of the volume of each response.

“To my mind that was a direct violation of the provisions of Section 114 of the Primary Election Law and that the election of the four delegates at large is void,” Smith continued, citing case law in support of his contention. “The language of Section 114 of the Primary Election Law is very clear as to how the vote of a State Convention shall be taken upon the nomination of candidates and the election of delegates.”

“I simply bring this to your attention because of the fact that I am personally opposed to the methods adopted at the Convention and do not feel that your supporters had a full opportunity to voice their sentiments in the Convention.”

Roosevelt had supported the presidential candidacy of William Howard Taft, his former secretary of war, in the 1908 election. In Roosevelt’s opinion, however, Taft had failed to carry on the progressive agenda that he had begun when, after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, he had risen from vice president to president. Now, he was challenging Taft for the 1912 Republican Party presidential nomination. (Fargo Forum, p. 1.)

As a former New York governor, Roosevelt had supported reform of the state’s primary system to allow a party’s members to choose who they wanted as their nominee by direct voting. (Feldman p. 494.) But in 1911, a “reform” act essentially preserved the convention system by which a party’s bosses chose its nominee. (Brown, p. 201.) “The law finally enacted … can scarcely be recognized by the name of direct primary,” the Legislative Voters Association declared. (Feldman, p. 495.)

The state convention was the culmination of the contentious and, in New York City, chaotic primary on March 26, 1912.

There is no doubt that politicians and officials combined to make the primary law a farce to discredit it. In the 1912 primaries, great confusion occurred. The peak of absurdity was reached by the election board in New York City, which decided to use a ballot 14 feet long. A newspaper suggested in this connection that such ballots made admirable hall runners for city flats. At least 400 out of the 1699 election districts were lacking in something-ballots, tally sheets, or election officials – and, as a result, no primary at all was held in quite a “substantial fraction” of the districts. Judge Duell, Mr. Roosevelt’s manager, telegraphed Governor Dix at that time: “An apter method of mocking the supposed right of the voter to signify his will at a party primary could not have been devised.” (Feldman, pp. 494-495.)

[Elephant in top hat and suit talking to bull moose in a suit as Woodrow Wilson walks by.] Barclay, M. [Between 1912 and 1920]. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Roosevelt won only a single delegate in the city of his birth, where the population outnumbered that of the rest of the state, and only seven in the state compared to Taft’s 83. The absurdly long ballot used in New York County (Manhattan), with a blank space of up to three feet before the listing of candidates from the party’s progressive wing, had led voters to mistakenly tear off the “waste paper,” making it impossible to vote for the candidate of their choice. “They are stealing the primary elections from us,” Roosevelt declared. “I cannot and will not stand by while the opinion of the people is being suppressed and their will thwarted.” (Morris, pp. 180-181.)

Going into the Republican National Convention in Chicago in June, Roosevelt had 411 delegates pledged to him compared to Taft’s 201, with 540 needed to win the nomination. The seating of 254 delegates was contested. Another 166 had not openly pledged to any candidate, but many were Taft supporters from New York whose party leaders wanted to maintain their bargaining power. The Republican National Committee, controlled by Taft supporters, awarded 235 of the contested delegate seats to Taft and 19 to Roosevelt. (Gould, pp. 138-139.) The former president asserted Taft had allowed delegates to be fraudulently seated but instructed his supporters to mutely allow the proceedings to go forward and then leave the convention. (Gould p. 140.) They subsequently formed the Bull Moose Party, with Roosevelt as its presidential nominee. Although Roosevelt received a larger percentage of the popular vote in the general election than Taft, neither received more votes than Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who became the next president.


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