The election of 1916, it’s another presidential election to occur during a time of war, this time World War 1, and the incumbent president is gonna need to pull out all the stops to beat his opponent in what turned out to be one of the closest battles for the white house up to that point in time…
Wilson’s Time in Office
Before we get into the election itself, there’s a lot of background info leading into this race that needs to be discussed, first let’s talk about the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.
As mentioned in the previous election article, Wilson won in a four-way race for the presidency thanks to the Republican Party is deeply divided by the bad blood between William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt leading to Wilson and the Democrats gliding their way to victory.
After being sworn in, Wilson much like Roosevelt when he became president went on to make a swiping amount of change during his term in office both for the good and for the bad.
In terms of the good, Woodrow Wilson eventually supported the idea of having child labor laws, oversaw the creation of the Federal Trade Commission, and obtained what is now called the Virgin Islands in 1916. Wilson also signed into law the Revenue Act and Federal Reserve Act of 1913 with the first act seeing a decrease in tariffs rates but also the beginning of the federal income tax which affected three percent of the country’s wealthy class and the second act led to the creation of a centralized banking system for the United States.
In terms of the bad, Wilson’s handling of race relations in the U.S. specifically towards African Americans were horrendous with the president re-establishing institutionalized racism in the federal government with many African Americans losing their jobs and allowing many branches of government to segregate against blacks.
Wilson would further spread the ideas of Jim Crow laws by allowing places to discriminate against African Americans most infamously with signs that says: ‘Blacks Only’ when it came to places that were usually in poor conditions; This resulted in a number of black activists attempting to confront the president about his actions which led to Wilson basically saying “Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be regarded as such by you gentleman.”
On top of that, Wilson also ignored the idea of women being given the right to vote in the early stages of his presidency, he allowed numerous counts of intervention in Latin America and sent U.S. troops to Mexico to hunt for Pancho Villa all of which led to growing tensions during the Mexican Revolution.
The War to End All Wars
While all of this is occurring in the United States, the rest of the world was engaged in a conflict that called ‘The Great War’ or as we know it today as World War 1 – between the Allied Powers (British, France, Italy, Russia etc.) against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire etc.)
By 1914 the war had officially begun with nations soon being drawn into the conflict as many battles saw the implementation of new technologies like flamethrowers, tanks and machine guns being used in and outside of the trenches as well as the usage of chlorin/mustard gas while air and overseas battles saw the usage of submarines and airplanes to conduct warfare.
As the war persisted in 1916 numerous lives were lost on both sides with the Battle of the Somme being the prime example of that as this battle saw the deaths of over a million soldiers and many more causalities leading many to refer to it as one of the costliest and deadliest fights in the entirety of the first world war.
Despite all of this the U.S. tried to stay neutral when it came to involvement in the great war, but a number of events occurred that attempted to push the United States into the mayhem.
The most notably would have to be the sinking of the RMS Lusitania where a German submarine shot torpedoes at a British ocean liner following Germany’s declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare against the United Kingdom and this event saw close to 1,200 passengers dying with some of them being American citizens and it led to public opinion turning on Germany after this attack.
Even still, many Americans were against entering the war and some people like famous industrialist Henry Ford took it upon themselves to travel to Europe as a way to end the conflict through diplomacy rather than violence and its this atmosphere that will be the background for the U.S. presidential election of 1916.
So that’s the background info regarding World War 1 up to that point and Woodrow Wilson’s presidency as he and his vice president, Thomas Marshall unanimously get re-nominated by the Democratic Party, now it’s time to see who the Republicans nominate as their candidate.
The Judge Turned Nominee
After their embarrassing defeat in the president election of 1912, the Republican Party were looking to get the progressives back into the party while at the same time hoping to make Woodrow Wilson a one term president.
To do that, the Republicans attempted to find a candidate that was appealing to both sides of the GOP’s base. While some names actively pursued the nomination, the one person many Republicans were looking at as a possible candidate was Charles Evans Hughes who was the former Governor of New York who became a Supreme Court Justice after being appointed by then President William Howard Taft in 1910.
Hughes had the advantage over many of his opponents due to the fact that he was on the Supreme Court for six years and therefore his views on many issues were unknown to many especially on the war.
Hughes became the Republican Party’s nominee making him the only Supreme Court Justice to ever be nominated by a major political party for president; Hughes’ running mate was Charles Fairbanks who was the vice president to Theodore Roosevelt during Teddy’s time as commander and chief.
The GOP are looking to play it safe as it relates to choosing their candidates for this election and they think they have a winning pair in Hughes and Fairbanks that will attract many progressive voters back to the party.
Speaking of the progressives, it’s time to look at what Roosevelt and the Progressive Party are going to do as it relates to this election.
Problems within the Progressive Party
Following his stunning performance as a third party candidate in the previous election, many progressives expected Theodore Roosevelt to run once again under as the party’s nominee for president especially as the U.S. was facing the down the prospect of potentially getting involved in the great war.
However much to shock of many progressives in the party, Roosevelt refused to run mostly because the former president didn’t want the election to be thrown into Wilson’s favor like how it was in 1912, plus he wasn’t a big fan of the incumbent president following many disarrangements both men had in the lead up to 1916.
Roosevelt would further shock the progressives announcing that he was going to be endorsing Hughes in hopes that this would lead to many of his followers also supporting Hughes, but many in the progressive party refused to so.
This led to the party looking for someone else to run but after a bunch of names refused the nomination and the fact that John Milliken Parker (who was a progressive) informed everyone that he would run for vice president but keep the presidential nominee spot open left many confused and this led to many progressives going on to endorse Hughes or Wilson and subsequently putting an end to the Progressive Party.
The Socialist Party
Following their success with the popular vote in the 1912 election, you’d think Eugene Debs would run for president for the Socialist Party a fifth time, but instead the former union leader decided to run for congress in this election leaving the presidential ticket wide open for someone else.
Unlike the progressive party, the Socialists were able to nominate a candidate for president and vice president; They went with Michigan newspaper publisher, Allen Benson as their nominee with George Ross Kirkpatrick, a writer and lecturer from New Jersey as his running mate.
Both Benson and Kirkpatrick were staunchly against the United States entering the war and decided to make that their platform going into this election with the Socialist Party proposing the idea of a national referendum to decide on whether or not the U.S. should get involved in the conflict.
Of course, much like with Roosevelt and the progressives without the party’s well-known figurehead (Eugene Debs) at the head of the ticket, the Socialist Party didn’t stand much of chance in this election.
So those are the candidates running in this election, now it’s time look at the platforms that both Wilson and Hughes had going into this race.
The issue of foreign policy as you can imagine dominated the campaigns with both sides running on two different platforms that are making equally strong cases to the American people.
The Republicans and Theodore Roosevelt himself are out making speeches in support of Hughes who is running on the idea of military preparedness, in other words preparing the country and the military for war because it’s looking more and more likely that the United States is going to get involved in World War 1 and Hughes wants to make sure that the nation is ready to fight if they have to get involved.
However, Hughes’ moderate views on issues and his refusal in supporting a law that looked to make an 8-hour workday possible is actually going to hurt his campaign.
The Democrats are promoting the idea of Woodrow Wilson’s isolationist policy with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War!” even though it was under Wilson’s administration that saw a lot of foreign involvement Mexico and the rest of Latin American.
Wilson is also running on the successful aspects of his record during his term as president and is looking to continue that while portraying the Republicans as the more pro war party in this election.
Most Americans believed that Charles Evans Hughes was likely to win the race with Hughes himself going to bed the night before the election believing he would wake up the next day as the new president.
Even Wilson himself was thinking the same thing and as such he concocted a plan where if he had lost the election, then he would make Hughes the new Secretary of State at which point Wilson and his VP would resign from their positions allowing Hughes to become the new president as the line for presidential succession allowed the Secretary of State to become president upon the resignation of the previous president and vice president.
Wilson’s logic was that the country couldn’t afford a lame duck president at a time of possibly involvement in a war and decided to make Hughes the new Secretary of State and then president, if Woodrow lost the election; So, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way let’s look at the results and see which one of these two emerged as the winner.
Much like the previous election, you need 266 electoral votes to win and despite what the electoral map above may have you be upon first glance, this is one of the closest presidential elections since 1876 as Woodrow Wilson narrowly wins re-election with 277 electoral votes and 49.2% of the popular vote.
Charles Evan Hughes received 254 electoral votes and 46.1% of the popular vote; Wilson won 30 states to Hughes 18, but the election was close in places like California with Wilson winning the state with just 3,800 votes out of one million votes .
The biggest factor that many see as to why Hughes didn’t win was his snubbing of then California Governor and progressive, Hiram Johnson; Had Hughes won all of the 13 electoral votes California had at the time, he would have received 267 votes to Wilson’s 264 votes making Hughes the new president…that’s how close this race was.
The Socialist Party came in third place with 3.2% of the popular vote and the Progressive Party received less than 1% of the popular vote, ensuring that party’s demise.
With this victory, Wilson becomes the first Democratic president to get two consecutive terms in office since Andrew Jackson but also becoming the second of three Democrats to win an election and re-election despite getting less than 50% of the popular vote with the first one to do so being Grover Cleveland in 1884 and 1892.