1916 Thriller Defined Parties

Setting America's two political parties on the path they continue to follow today.


Campaign posters backing Wilson in 1916.

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A few thousand votes in California was all it took to tip the 1916 election to the Democratic incumbent President Woodrow Wilson, thus setting America's two political parties on the path they continue to follow today. Coalitions formed during the Republican Party's split four years earlier became the prevailing political structure after 1916.

Republicans had dominated the political landscape from the late 19th century until Teddy Roosevelt left the GOP to form a third party carrying the banner for his trustbusting and other progressive programs. The Progressive Party went belly up after Roosevelt's defeat in 1912, setting up a newly united, though still healing, Republican Party to take on Wilson. Though Roosevelt had returned to the fold, the Republicans nominated U.S. Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, a former governor, to take on the president. Wilson ran on the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War," referring to World War I, as well as a host of domestic reforms achieved during his first term. Wilson garnered the former Progressive vote but still won by a remarkably small popular margin, the closest in California with fewer than 4,000 votes. Wilson earned just 23 more electoral votes than Hughes, one of the slimmest margins in U.S. history.

The painful loss showed Republicans the peril of neglecting foreign policy issues, says John Milton Cooper, a Wilson historian now serving as a policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The outcome, says Cooper, solidified the two parties in the directions they have taken since: The Republicans representing conservatives and the Democrats a coalition of minorities and low-income groups aspiring to join the middle class.