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The race of 1912

A century ago, five presidential candidates were on the ballot; they campaigned for just a few months before the November election

October 17, 2012
Nancy Kayser ( , The Daily Freeman Journal

When Hamilton County voters went to the polls on Nov. 5, 1912, their choices included five U. S. presidential candidates, 13 electors and a full slate of state candidates nominated by five different political parties, to make it one of the most historic elections in the country's history.

The presidential election of 1912 was the first election in which all 48 of the contiguous United States participated with Arizona and New Mexico casting their first presidential votes. The privilege of voting was limited to males in 42 of the states. Only the states of Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Washington and California allowed women equal voting rights. Iowa females were given "partial suffrage" in 1894, meaning they could vote on yes or no issues but could not cast a ballot to elect public officials.

Leading off the 1912 ballot was William H. Taft, the incumbent president nominated by the Republican Party. Former President Theodore Roosevelt had sought the Republican nomination, but failing to attain it, pulled out of the party to create the Progressive or "Bull Moose" party to run. After a contentious Democratic convention, Woodrow Wilson, governor of New Jersey, was selected on the 46th ballot to represent that party. Attempting his fourth presidential run was Eugene V. Debs, of Indiana, for the Socialist party. Also on the ballot was the Prohibitionist candidate, Eugene W. Chafin, an attorney from Arizona.

Article Photos

This graphic from the Library of Congress was released to news agencies on October 30, 1912 by Underwood and Underwood, a national news picture agency. The graphic, picturing presidential candidates Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and William Taft, would have been considered state-of-the-art for the time period and would have been transmitted to newspapers via telegraph.

Candidates for office 100 years ago did not actively campaign until selected by their party during the summer conventions. There may have been considerable discussions on possible front runners, but the political campaign season was generally confined to June through the November elections.

Several events added to the usual excitement of a nationwide election. James S. Sherman, sitting vice-president running with Taft on the Republican ticket, died six days before the election. Ballots were already printed so there could be no substitution. The actual selection, if needed, would be left to the presidential electors.

Three weeks prior to the 1912 election, candidate and former President Theodore Roosevelt was shot as he was entering a Milwaukee, Wis. hotel to give a speech. The bullet was slowed by his heavy overcoat, speech papers and glasses case, but still lodged in his chest. He refused medical aid and gave a resounding 90-minute speech to those gathered. At the end of the event, he finally consented to emergency care and was whisked away to a local hospital for treatment. The wound kept him off the campaign trail until just a few days before election. Out of respect, Taft and the other candidates curtailed their campaigning during the week Roosevelt was hospitalized.

Three days prior to the election, Woodrow Wilson received a three-inch gash on his head when his automobile stuck a mound in the road throwing the candidate's head against the roof of the vehicle. While the event received national news coverage, it did not stop Wilson from campaigning.

All of the Webster City newspapers freely expressed their opinions on the forthcoming elections. And they weren't always polite to their fellow editors or parties in what they wrote. During that era, many newspapers exchanged subscriptions with other local, state and national publications. They used editorials and quotations from those papers to help fill their own columns and to support their own party affiliations. There was no doubt in the newspapers of that era which party the editors supported.

None of the presidential runners campaigned in Hamilton County, though President Taft did make a whistle stop in Webster City during Watermelon Days in September 1911. There were no pictures of the candidates in the local papers prior to the election. Voters had to rely on printed campaign brochures and buttons to see what their candidate actually looked like. Party platforms and campaign promises were also only available through the print media. A few ads appeared in the local papers a day or two prior to the election promoting a particular candidate's platform. While the ads had the disclaimer "Political Advertisement" at the top of the ad, none identified who paid for them.

The Iowa legislature had just passed a law requiring everyone residing in a town of more than 3,500 to re-register to vote for the 1912 election. The Daily Freeman-Tribune and the weekly Webster City Journal and Webster City Tribune each explained the registration process. Voters were given three days in late October to register at their regular polling place in their precinct. The law also allowed, by certification that residents were out of town or sick on those three days, registration on the Saturday prior to the election and with special privilege to register on Election Day. A total of 1,231 men registered in the five Webster City wards, up 170 from four years before.

The Daily Freeman-Tribune reported in their Oct. 28 edition on the straw vote taken at the news stand of Willson & Ferrell the previous day. The poll had been announced in all the newspapers and 452 voters showed up. Roosevelt won with Wilson in second and Taft taking third.

On Nov. 1, 1912, the weekly Webster City Tribune ran an article on "How to Vote." The lengthy report instructed voters how to mark their ballots with an "X" for their choice of candidates or to leave the box blank if not voting for that candidate. It concluded, "Why cannot any person who has sense enough to vote at all do this?"

A day before the election, the paper reported that telegraphic returns from the presidential election would be available at the Orpheum Theater and the Elks club rooms. The Elks had arranged to have a special wire strung from the telegraph office to their building where they would furnish returns until early morning.

On Nov. 5, 1912, the polls opened at 7 a.m. for the prescribed twelve hours of voting. The official county canvass reported some nine days later that there were 4,228 Hamilton County voters. It was also reported that the general election cost the tax payers of the county $1,200 with the largest single expense being the printing of ballots.

Theodore Roosevelt of the Progressive "Bull Moose" party carried Hamilton County with a vote of 2,282. Woodrow Wilson, Democrat, was second with 1,041 votes. Incumbent President William H. Taft received only 831 votes for third place. Eugene Debs, the Socialist candidate, garnered 68 votes and Prohibition Party candidate, Eugene W. Chafin received 65 votes.

However, the state of Iowa and the nation, gave the winning nod to Wilson to be the next president. Theodore Roosevelt came in second, while William H. Taft was swept from office when he carried only two states.

Political affairs were not the only major local concern 100 years ago. Appearing in the Sept. 11, 1912 editorial columns of the Hunter family Daily Freeman-Tribune was this tongue-in-cheek passage, "The greatest and most important race in Iowa the present year is now on between King Corn and Jack Frost, with the king a comfortable distance in the lead. May he win with a lot to spare."



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