I think everyone knows my utter admiration for the badass that was Theodore Roosevelt. If you do not know why he was an amazing man, please go here and read so you can know the extent of his awesomeness.
However, there were some times when the sound of how awesome he was deafened him to the realities of the situation. Roosevelt had declared he would not run again after winning his own term in 1904. He claimed the term he finished for the assassinated president, William McKinley, would count as his second. He handpicked William Howard Taft as his successor for the Republican nomination and bowed out. But Taft alienated progressive Republicans like Roosevelt by failing to nominate any of them to his cabinet and favoring protectionist policies like the Payne-Aldrich Tariff. TR was not one to be silent about this for long. He began criticizing without naming names in 1910, but by 1912 he was happy to name and shame. The two men became standard bearers for the two factions within the Republican party, which was rapidly splitting. The two fought it out at the nominating convention in 1912, but Taft’s conservative forces won the day and renominated the incumbent. TR wasn’t about to let that stand, and the Progressive or Bull Moose party was born.
Sounds like a great idea, right? The two main parties don’t represent the people, so let’s start a third. Plus with a star like Theodore Roosevelt at the head it can’t go wrong. Well, not so much. You can blame the founders and human nature for this one because the way the system is set up, a third party cannot gain traction. The American political system is what is called a single-member district plurality. What the heck does that mouthful mean? Well, it means we elect representatives from districts and the one who gets the most votes wins the seat. So it doesn’t matter whether someone wins by 1% or 91%, it’s winner take all. There is another thing called “Duverger’s Law”, which is the tendency for political systems to spontaneously move to two groups or parties. That is because statistically, third parties only pick up about 15% of the votes in each district so don’t win any seats. So, with the winner take all system, the third party divides the electorate base between the two similar parties leaving the other party to take the majority and the seat.
As with most things, TR was not about to admit defeat. He and the progressive wing of the Republican party he took with him campaigned hard. He did not even let a bullet in his chest stop him, giving an hour long speech after being shot by William Schrenk in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. TR removed his jacket so the crowd could see his bloody shirt. He told them, “You see, it takes more than one bullet to kill a Bull Moose.” The platform they fought for shared some ideals with those of Wilson’s campaign, including ideals the proceeded naturally from Roosevelt’s famed “Square Deal”. Despite all this, the Bull Moose party split the Republican party and clinched a victory for Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
The Bull Moose party did go on to capture nine House seats, mainly in New York, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Massachusetts. They ran 138 candidates in the 1914 election, including women, however, only five were elected. The candidates ran only received less than 10% of the popular vote. The party petered out after 1918.
And Roosevelt? The defeat took the wind out of his sails. He went on to other adventures, but never ventured into the realm of politics again.
Sources available on request