On the right was the Republican candidate, President William Howard Taft , running for a second term. On the left was socialist
Eugene Debs. Trying to win the voters in the middle were Democrat
Woodrow Wilson, and former President
, running as the head of his new Bull Moose Party.
William Howard Taft
William Howard Taft represented the conservative wing of the Republican Party. His leadership was widely viewed as ineffectual.
Enjoying majorities in both houses of Congress, Taft failed to build a consensus among the contentious factions of the party over
issues involving labor unions, prohibition and lower tariffs. His support of a high protective tariff emerged as Taft's most
vulnerable policy position, even though his record as a trust-buster stood him in good stead among anti-trust progressives.
Solidifying his location on the political right, Taft favored private, commercial use of the nation's natural resources at some cost
to their conservation-a position at odds with Taft's predecessor, the progressive Theodore Roosevelt. Taft's hard conservative line
incited a rift between progressives and conservatives within the Republican Party -- ultimately resulting in fissure.
Joining the progressive elements of the Republican Party, Theodore Roosevelt sought, at first, to influence his party's move away
from the right and toward a progressive agenda. But when he determined the Republicans were set to hold their ground on the right,
Roosevelt bolted the party. Leading many alienated Republican reformers, Roosevelt founded the Progressive Party. The Party's
mascot and nickname originated from Roosevelt's buoyant declaration that he was strong as a bull moose. The image fit.
As president, Roosevelt had successfully strengthened the office of president, and championed progressive causes such as the
regulation of trusts, rights of labor and conservation of natural resources.
Just as the Republicans split in two, Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats faced the possibility of division between traditional and
reform wings. But they also saw unity, even if tenuous, as the means by which they could capture the White House for the first time
in two decades. Wilson proved himself an apt political strategist as he carved out the solid center of reform opinion. He built a
platform on which traditional Democratic voters from the South and the North-East could stand. But he also appealed to those who
wanted change: social reformers, African-Americans, farmers and workers. In appealing to reformers and conservatives alike, Wilson
ensured a unified front in the election battle.
Eugene Debs carried the Socialist Party banner, in 1912, for the third consecutive election. He enjoyed mass support among farmers
in the Middle West, miners in the West, and immigrants and urban workers in the East. Both major parties, Debs believed, had
betrayed the founding fathers' commitment to equality. At the 1912 Socialist convention, Debs proclaimed the Americanness of
Socialism. He pursued an agenda including woman suffrage and restricting child labor, but was most concerned with worker rights.
He advocated the right to unionize and strike, and was a strong spokesman for workplace safety. During a time of disparity between
the haves and have-nots, Debs' appeal rested in his charismatic advocacy of the disenfranchised.