Working Paper No. 06-17:
Faithless Electors of 1912: Arthur Wakeling on the Kansas Electoral Case

Author(s):

Ross Davies

Date Posted: 2006

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Abstract:

As the incumbent, William Howard Taft was the presumptive Republican nominee for President in 1912, but he faced a challenge from Theodore Roosevelt, his old friend and predecessor in the White House. Roosevelt enjoyed enormous personal popularity. Moreover, with that growing portion of the public — including many Republicans — whose sympathies were progressive, Roosevelt's views on several key issues had shifted sharply away from the traditional positions that remained bedrock for Taft and the conservative core of the party. Taft, however, controlled the party machinery and thus in most states the selection of delegates to the Republican national convention, making it impossible for Roosevelt to acquire the party's presidential nomination by conventional means. The only hope for Roosevelt lay in the popular primaries that had by 1912 taken hold in about a dozen states. His campaign rested on the theory that if he could show overwhelming support in the primary states, the political superiority of his prospects to Taft's would be obvious, and as a result the Republican organization would back him rather than Taft.

The first step of the Roosevelt Republican nomination plan worked, but the second failed. He ran away with the vast majority of the primary states (including Taft's home state of Ohio), campaigning on the mix of progressive themes that he labeled "the New Nationalism," including a graduated income tax, expanded government control of big business through regulation rather than antitrust enforcement, direct primaries and election of Senators, initiative and referendum, women's suffrage, labor law reform, a "scientific" high tariff, and recall of judicial decisions. Roosevelt drew a total of 1,157,397 votes, to 761,716 for Taft and 351,043 for Robert La Follette, the progressive senator from Wisconsin. Taft nevertheless marshaled the party regulars and prevailed at the Republican national convention in June 1912. In response, Roosevelt and many of his supporters bolted to form the National Progressive Party (aka the Bull Moose Party).

The Bull Moose forces, with less than five months to prepare for a national election, struggled with the problems shared by every national third party movement in the United States — lack of local political organization, lack of candidates for Congress and local and state offices in general, and (most importantly for Roosevelt) lack of established slates of presidential electors. Possible solutions varied from state to state, depending on local regulations and political conditions. In some states where Roosevelt was especially strong, progressives proposed to simply co-opt part or all of the local Republican organization, including Republican presidential electors, for the Bull Moose. Kansas was one such state, and after a majority of the certified Republican candidates for elector declared that given the opportunity they would vote for Roosevelt, Taft supporters went to court.

The case eventually involved three members of the Supreme Court of the United States, in one way or another. Their responses speak to the precarious position of courts involved in resolving electoral disputes.