Election Surprises – Woodrow Wilson’s Re-Election

Woodrow Wilson

In 1912, Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, had been elected president in spite of the fact that more people voted against him than for him. He accomplished his minority election because the Republican majority was split between two major candidates, President Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt. In state after state, the Republican majority split their vote and Wilson carried the state with a plurality (less than a majority, but more than anyone else) of the popular vote. Although his total popular vote was far less than a majority, he won an overwhelming majority in the Electoral College.

In 1916, Wilson was facing a re-united Republican majority. He was not expected to be re-elected. In fact, due to the war crisis looming, Wilson had made plans to appoint Hughes (the Republican candidate) Secretary of State and then along with his Vice-President resign so that Hughes could take over the government immediately.

Wilson was easily re-nominated at the Democratic convention. At the Republican convention, Teddy Roosevelt wanted the nomination badly. But after his defection to the Progressive Party in 1912, the party regulars were not willing to give him that nomination. They settled instead on Supreme Court Justice Hughes, a former governor of New York.

Teddy Roosevelt decided to support Hughes, but only because he thought Wilson was even worse. Roosevelt considered Hughes (who wore a beard) a “whiskered Wilson” and said the only difference between them was a shave. Wilson campaigned on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War” and Hughes took much the same position. Teddy, of course, couldn’t wait to get into the war. Teddy’s hawkish pronouncements during the campaign turned out to be Hughes’ albatross.

Wilson’s pro-peace and reform campaign proved extremely popular with the voters. Every time Roosevelt campaigned for Hughes, his nationalistic statements won more votes for Wilson. Roosevelt seemed to be campaigning more for war than for Hughes. After the election, some of Hughes’ supporters sarcastically sent Roosevelt a telegram of congratulations on the election of Wilson. The telegram said “You contributed more than any other person [to Wilson’s re-election] in America…Wilson ought to give you a cabinet position, as you elected him beyond doubt…You made Wilson a million votes.”

Wilson’s peace campaign, and his identification with reform measures of his first term, made his re-election possible. But some say that Hughes lost the election because of the famous “forgotten handshake.” This incident happened, or didn’t happen, in California. The Governor of California was Hiram Johnson, who had been TR’s running-mate on the Bull Moose ticket in 1912, who was running for a senate seat. He led the Progressive faction of the California Republican Party. Hughes visited California and made the rounds of the regular conservative leaders, appearing to intentionally avoid the progressive leaders.

On August 21, both Hughes and Johnson were staying at the same hotel in Long Beach, but the two never met. When Hughes returned to Los Angeles and learned what had happened, he sent a friendly note to Governor Johnson, but by then it was too late. The damage had been done. Johnson officially supported Hughes, but did nothing to help him in California. Among California Progressives, the word went out that their preference was for Johnson for the Senate and Wilson for President. Carrying California put Wilson over the top, and provided his margin of victory.

New York Congressman John Dwight later said Hughes could have won the election with a single dollar. He said that Hughes could have carried the state and the election if “a man of sense, with a dollar, would have invited Hughes and Johnson to his hotel room when they were both in the same hotel in California. He could have ordered three Scotch whiskies, which would have been seventy-five cents, and that would have left a tip of twenty-five cents for the waiter…That little Scotch would have brought those men together; there would have been mutual understanding and respect and Hughes would have carried California and been elected.”

On election night, Wilson went to bed thinking he had been defeated, although not all the western returns were in. It looked, early in the evening, as though Hughes had carried California, which would give him the election. But as the returns trickled in, the outcome was very much in doubt.

Hughes also went to bed thinking he had been elected. According to one apochryphal story, a reporter stopped by Hughes hotel room in New York City in the early hours of the next morning to tell him he had lost and to get a statement. The valet who answered the door told the reporter that “The President has retired.” The reporter slapped the newspaper announcing Wilson’s re-election into the valet’s chest and snapped back “When he wakes up, tell him he is no longer President.”

It was a great victory for the Democrats. They had started as the minority party facing a re-united Republican Party. Because of the party’s identification with reforms and peace, they won over Republican farmers in the West and many working class people had voted for the “Full Dinner Pail” in McKinley’s day. Of course, a month or two after Wilson’s second inauguration, we entered World War I anyway.

The copyright of the article ELECTION SURPRISES – WOODROW WILSON’S RE-ELECTION is owned by John S. Cooper. Permission to republish ELECTION SURPRISES – WOODROW WILSON’S RE-ELECTION in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.