The 1912 United States presidential election
was the 32nd quadrennial presidential election, held on Tuesday, November 5, 1912. It was the fifth consecutive presidential election in which none of the candidates received a majority of the votes in the electoral college, and the second consecutive election in which the incoming presidential term started without a President having been elected. Following the passage of the Twentieth Amendment, in 1918, such an outcome is no longer possible.
The presidency was vacant coming into the election, with Vice President Francis Warren, a Republican from Wyoming, having served as Acting President since 1909. Warren was not chosen as a candidate, as the three major party candidates were former Speaker of the House Champ Clark of Missouri, the Democratic candidate, Congressman William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, who was the Progressive candidate, having previously been the Populist Party candidate in 1896, 1900, and 1904, and Governor Charles Evans Hughes of New York, the Republican candidate. The candidates' respective running mates were Congressman Joseph Goulden of New York, Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey, and Senator Wesley Jones of Washington.
The three candidates all received similar levels of support, with Clark winning in the south, Bryan being strong in the midwest and on the Great Plains, and Hughes performing well on the Eastern seaboard. This resulted in a hung election, with none of the three candidates being able to claim the necessary 266 electoral votes to win. Bryan and Wilson led the way with 211, and 36.3% of the popular vote, while Clark and Goulden finished second in the electoral college with 178 electoral votes and 28.5% of the popular vote, and Hughes and Jones finished third in the electoral college with 142 votes, but with 31.5% of the popular vote. The remaining popular votes were split between minor factions, such as the Populist, Socialist, and Prohibition parties. This was the first time that the Progressive Party had won the most electoral college or popular votes in a presidential election.
With the electoral college split, the election was thrown to Congress to decide in a contingent election. The Senate was to vote between Wilson and Goulden for the vice presidency, while the House of Representatives could choose between each of the three major candidates, with each state receiving one vote. Republicans held the plurality of the seats in both chambers, but there was no majority party. Goulden, a relatively anonymous moderate member of Congress, was chosen by the Senate by a
margin of 54-40, as the moderate and conservative Republicans aligned with the Democrats to create a majority, and elected Goulden as the next Vice President of the United States.
However, while the Constitution required the Senate to chose between the top two candidates in the electoral college balloting for Vice President, the House of Representatives was to pick between the top three
candidates for President - Bryan, Clark, and Hughes. Each state voted as a bloc, with states that were tied abstaining from the balloting. With forty-seven states represented in the House, the vote of twenty-four would be required to elect a President. In the first round of balloting, sixteen states voted for Clark, fourteen for Bryan, and eleven for Hughes, while six were unable to reach a consensus and abstained. While Clark had a strong base of support from the southern representatives, who were reluctant to vote for either the "radical" Bryan or the "Yankee Republican" Hughes, he had little chance of winning the vote of ten other states. Meanwhile, the Progressive members of Congress were unwilling to vote for anyone except Bryan, whom they saw as the rightful President, as he had won the most electoral college votes, the largest share of the popular vote, and had carried more states than the other two candidates. Finally, the Republicans were also unwilling to vote for either Clark or Bryan, and it soon became clear that a consensus had been reached
among Republican leadership and members that Goulden, who was seen as relatively weak moderate, was preferable to installing either the strong-willed and southern Clark or the "iconoclastic" Bryan as President. The resulting stalemate, just like the one that had emerged in 1908, was intractable.
While a number of follow-up votes were held over the following months, as the Constitution was understood to require, no progress could be made, and it was clear that Clark, Bryan, and Hughes would not receive the necessary 24 state-votes. For the second consecutive election, a deadlocked House of Representatives was unable to elect a President, and on Inauguration Day, March 4th, 1913, Francis Warren, the 26th Vice President, acting as the 27th President, handed over power to Joseph Goulden, the 27th Vice President, acting as the 28th President, in a muted ceremony at the White House.
While there was outrage from many Progressives, who felt that the election had been "stolen" from Bryan, and even some minor civil unrest in some western states as the outcome of the election became clear, the precedent of the House of Representatives failing to elect a President had been set four years previously with the installation of Warren as Vice President, and Warren had served four years in the office, acting as President with little controversy considering the unusual circumstances.
Goulden's term in office proceeded relatively unremarkably. The House of Representatives elections in 1914 even saw a swing towards the Democrats, as
Goulden, while not extremely personally popular, was seen as a more moderate figure by many people in the North than other leading Democrats. However, on the 3rd of May, 1915, while traveling to give a speech in Philadelphia, Goulden collapsed and died, aged 70. Goulden's death meant that the (acting) presidency was inherited by Secretary of State William J. Stone, a conservative Democrat from Missouri, who was a key ally of Champ Clark. The selection of Stone as Secretary of State had been a concession by Goulden to Clark, who had chosen him as the Vice Presidential candidate in the first place, but Stone was significantly more conservative and isolationist than the consensus in Washington, and the Congress clashed with Stone almost immediately.
Stone vetoed five bills while he was acting as President, something that neither Warren nor Goulden had done even once while in office. The conflict between the legislative and executive branches came to a head in December of that year, when, as he had threatened to do, Stone vetoed the Revenue Act of 1915, which had been supported by Progressives and Republicans alike. The Congress attempted to override his veto, but were unable to do so because of the votes of Stone's southern Democratic allies, and the Revenue Act failed.
This confrontation between Stone and the Congress led to an agreement being made between leaders of the Progressive and Republican parties, most notably House Majority Leader Thomas Butler and Progressive Minority Leader William U'Ren. As the House of Representatives had not elected a President, they were still, even more than two-and-a-half years after the presidential election itself, constitutionally able to choose Clark, Bryan, or Hughes to be President. While the Twelfth Amendment required the House to "choose immediately, by ballot," the President, there was no expiry date for this power in the event that a majority was unable to be reached. (The Supreme Court had ruled in 1910, during the acting presidency of Warren, that the requirement that the House "immediately" choose a President did not mean that other legislative business could not occur after initial balloting had taken place, and that the House could elect a President at any point after the electoral college had voted.)
As Republican candidate Hughes had been a moderate Governor of New York, who had advocated for some progressive policies, it was agreed that the House would once again vote for the presidency, and that the Progressive members of the House would switch their votes from Bryan to Hughes. This resulted in twenty-six states voting for Hughes, sixteen for Clark, and five states not voting, which meant that Charles Evans Hughes was elected as the 29th President of the United States on December 16, 1915, more than three years after the initial election had taken place. William Stone stopped acting as president after 227 days serving in the office, most of which had come while Congress was out of session. This was the only time in United States history that congressional action had directly led to the replacement of a president, and, following the passage of the Twentieth Amendment, this can now only occur through impeachment.
Hughes served out the remaining year and 78 days of the presidential term, but lost his bid for re-election in 1916 to Progressive candidate Hiram Johnson, who championed the passage of the Twentieth Amendment, which changed the procedure for contingent elections in the House, ensuring that the non-election in 1908 and 1912 could not be repeated.