The best showing by a third-party presidential candidate in U.S. history began with a messy political divorce. Not surprisingly, it came up short.
In 1910, ex-President Teddy Roosevelt, a year out of office, returned to the United States from shooting lions on an African safari and from visiting dignitaries on a tour of Europe. He soon learned from his confreres that President William Howard Taft, Roosevelt's former secretary of war and handpicked successor, wasn't following his lead. In particular, Roosevelt thought Taft soft on two of his pet issues—conserving the nation's natural resources and cracking down on big business trusts and railroads. Taft's credentials as a progressive Republican had always been suspect, but the perfidy was now obvious to Roosevelt. A year earlier, Taft had gone out of his way to support the Payne-Aldrich Act of 1909, which raised domestic tariffs and contradicted the platform on which he had been elected. The same year, he also defended Richard A. Ballinger, his secretary of the interior, against charges that Ballinger had sold off land to coal companies in Alaska. Conservationists recoiled.
The gloves then came off. The Republican Party, long fracturing between conservatives and progressives, split into two corners: the Old Guard, siding with Taft, and the Insurgents, who felt that Taft's policies were tantamount to a blatant rough-riding of Roosevelt's legacy. As president, Roosevelt had energetically traded blows with the spawn of the industrial era—the newly created corporate monopolies, the big Beef Trust, Standard Oil Co., American Tobacco—earning himself the nickname "trustbuster." He had also championed conservation. Taft, though not opposed to government reform, noticeably lacked his predecessor's zeal.
Stalemate. By 1912, it was clear that the Republican Party would be hard pressed to agree on a candidate. Taft, the reigning electoral champion, weighing in at 340 pounds, was the obvious choice for the Old Guard. The Insurgents, after briefly flirting with Wisconsin progressive Robert La Follette, threw their allegiance to Roosevelt. Though initially hesitant to go haunch-to-paunch with his hefty former ally, Roosevelt acceded to their pleas in February 1912.
The battle for the Republican nomination degenerated into spectacle. Taft portrayed Roosevelt as "a flatterer of the people," "a dangerous egotist," "a demagogue." Roosevelt responded similarly, calling Taft a "fathead" and a "puzzle wit." Roosevelt held the upper hand, at first. He dominated the spring primaries and entered the Republican National Convention in June just shy of the delegate count he needed to win the nomination. But the Old Guard, which controlled the committee tasked with assigning the rest of the delegates, clearly favored Taft. A handshake here, a few wrist-squeezes later—and the Republicans handed Taft the nomination, by a hair.
The Insurgents went nuts. Roosevelt stormed out of the convention, his enraged followers in tow. He quickly accepted the nomination of a newly formed third party, the National Progressives. "The old parties are husks, with no real soul within either," he told his supporters that August in Chicago. Roosevelt laid out a grand platform, preaching economic reform and corporate regulation, stressing protection for the urban poor. Asked by a reporter about his health, Roosevelt quipped, "I'm fit as a bull moose." With a snort, the Bull Moose Party was born.
The campaign soon narrowed into a two-man contest between Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic Party's nominee, a novice but well-respected New Jersey governor. Taft was largely a nonplayer, having failed to grasp the national ethos. A public still seething over the sort of corporate horrors that had been revealed in exposés such as The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's portrait of the meatpacking industry, would not elect a timid president. Wilson, like Roosevelt, put forward a progressive agenda called the New Freedom, but Wilson took his pitch a step further. Whereas Roosevelt wanted better-regulated corporations, Wilson wanted the government to control them.
The differences between the men stoked the public's passions, too much so for John Schrank, a Bavarian immigrant who lived in New York City. He was a drifter, a bit lonely, a bit unstable. He later told police that "any man looking for a third term ought to be shot."
As Election Day neared, Schrank went to the Milwaukee hotel where Roosevelt was to speak and fired a single 32-caliber bullet as the ex-president was getting out of a car. Schrank's bullet pierced a 50-page copy of Roosevelt's speech in his breast pocket and hit a metal eyeglass case, careening away from his heart.
Roosevelt, crimson blood on his vest, still insisted on addressing his audience. "The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech," he said, while assuring voters that it would take more than a gunshot "to kill a Bull Moose."
Came up short. Roosevelt spent more than a week in a hospital, forcing him to curtail his campaign schedule, but the shooting's effect on his candidacy was probably minor. When the votes were in, Wilson had won a commanding victory, with 435 electoral votes to Roosevelt's 88. (Taft finished with eight.) Roosevelt had been unable to overcome a Republican fissure and a progressive opponent. But his 29 percent of the popular vote, to Wilson's 42 percent, was certainly the best performance by a third-party candidate in U.S. history—then or since. (Only two third-party candidates have come within 10 points of Roosevelt's tally: Millard Fillmore in 1856 and Ross Perot in 1992.) Roosevelt's popularity, coupled with Wilson's victory, signaled the public's longing for change. In the decade that followed, monopolies would be broken and regulations to control banks and other businesses strengthened.
Dismal presidential approval ratings open doors for promising third-party opponents. Rep. John Anderson, a moderate Illinois congressman, initially polled at 20 percent against President Jimmy Carter but in the final count took just 7 percent of the vote that elected Ronald Reagan. In June 1992, Texas billionaire Ross Perot jumped to an 8-point lead against George H. W. Bush. Perot ultimately lost to Bill Clinton, and his 19 percent popular vote couldn't top Teddy Roosevelt's draw in 1912.