On November 5, 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was defeated by Woodrow Wilson for the office of president of the United States. It was a defeat that hurt Roosevelt terribly, both personally and as a national figure. Roosevelt understood the Progressive Party, or Bull Moose Party, had brought issues to the attention of the people that needed to be there, whether he won the election or not. However, Roosevelt was at a loss at what to do with himself after the defeat. In order to stave off the disappointment, he would work on his autobiography and, in 1914, embark on an expedition to explore the South American wildness.
What had led to this defeat? When Roosevelt returned from his yearlong jaunt through Africa and Europe following his last term as president, he found his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, was not living up to his expectations. The idea of running for another term as president arose. Roosevelt was frustrated that his progressive reforms could not find sympathetic ears in the Republican Party, and his new associations with the Women’s Trade Union League and the Consumer’s League were not looked at favorably by Republican leadership. The only answer to putting the country back on track was to get back into the White House.
The 1912 election was special because it was also the first time primaries were held. Before this moment, caucuses and back room meetings had decided delegates for the national conventions. Now, the power was being handed to the people. And Roosevelt did not disappoint. He beat out Taft in primaries held in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Oregon, California and Maryland. He also beat Taft in his own home state of Ohio. If primaries and the popular vote had been the deciding factor in 1912, Roosevelt easily would have won the 1912 Republican presidential nomination.
D.F. Sweeney, editor of The Norfolk Press, writes to congratulate Roosevelt on his Illinois victory. From the Theodore Roosevelt Papers at the Library of Congress
The 1912 National Republican Convention was held at Chicago in July and Roosevelt himself attended, the first time a leading candidate was on hand for the convention festivities. However, it quickly became clear that Roosevelt would lose the nomination to Taft through controversy over delegates. In response, the National Progressive Party was born.
Hiram Johnson, Roosevelt's running mate in the 1912 election, writes to tell him of the enthusiasm he sees at a California rally for the Progressive Party. From the Theodore Roosevelt Papers at the Library of Congress
The presidential race very quickly focused on two candidates, Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Taft was so unpopular, he was never a factor in the race, and neither was perennial Socialist Party nominee Eugene Debs. The Bull Moose platform championed some of Roosevelt’s best known progressive ideas: the eight-hour work day, the six-day work week, conservation, the right of labor to organize, safe workplace legislation, and, most importantly, unemployment, old age and sickness social insurance. It also included woman suffrage, a plank advocated for by Roosevelt’s Female Brain Trust which included Jane Addams.
In what would be one of the strongest third party showings in American politics, and the closest the United States has come to a successful multi-party system, Roosevelt finished second behind Wilson with 4,119,538 votes to Wilson’s 6,293,454. Taft finished third with Debs far behind. It was still better than the fledging Republican Party’s first election in 1856 and yielded 13 Progressive congressmen and 260 Progressive state legislators.
Source: Kathleen Dalton, Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life