The National Progressive Party, popularly known as the “Bull Moose Party,” was founded in 1912 by disaffected Republicans and was one of the most successful third parties in U.S. history. The establishment of this new political party was part of a much larger Progressive movement, an attempt to solve large social problems brought about by rapid urbanization and industrialization in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Bull Moose Party was closely linked to former president Theodore Roosevelt, who was its standard bearer in 1912. The election of 1912 was, in fact, the party's high-water mark, and by 1916 it had largely faded. Though short lived, the group was highly influential, and within a few decades most of the positions advocated by the Bull Moose Party had become law.
The origin of the National Progressive Party had its roots in both the personal and the political. Roosevelt left the presidency in 1909 with his handpicked successor, Republican William Howard Taft, in office. The two men were friends, but a thank-you letter sent by Taft to the former president in which Roosevelt felt he was slighted began to erode the friendship. Roosevelt also missed the political limelight. Taft was more conservative politically, and a rift soon developed between progressive and conservative Republicans. While both men called themselves Progressives, Roosevelt believed much more strongly in social action through direct government intervention, while Taft believed the Constitution did not permit this. By 1910, Roosevelt was criticizing Taft and his policies publicly in speaking tours across the nation, and in early 1912 he decided to challenge his former friend. This was the first election in which primaries played a significant role in the nominating process, and though Roosevelt won a majority of these state contests (and more popular votes) by a large margin, the more conservative Taft forces controlled the party apparatus. Taft was nominated as the Republican presidential nominee on June 22; Roosevelt delegates then bolted the convention.
Though the Bull Moose Party would have some success, the biggest winners in the Republican split were the Democrats and their nominee, New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson. By late in the evening on election day, a Wilson landslide was evident. He won 40 states with 433 electoral votes, but the third-party Progressives finished a strong second, winning 6 states and 88 electoral votes. The incumbent Republican won only 2 states. The Bull Moose Party won the popular votes of more than 4 million, compared to Wilson's total of slightly more than 6 million. The Progressives succeeded in winning one senate seat and 17 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and elected 260 members to state legislatures, though winning no governorships. It was a strong start for a party not even four months old, and Progressives came out of 1912 with high hopes for the future.
This optimism, however did not last. Despite some success on the local level in 1913, fissures within the party were already developing. There were disagreements over leadership, and some advocated reuniting with the Republicans. In 1914 a schism developed between those party members who advocated for educating the public on Progressive ideas and those wanting to emphasize political organization. Members arguing for a focus on the political won out, and many left the party in frustration. The 1914 mid-term elections were a disaster for the Bull Moose Party. They won in only one state, California, and in several states finished in fourth place, behind even the socialists. Party leaders and members began drifting back into the Republican fold at an accelerating pace. By 1915, a further rift developed in the already weakened party. On one side, led by Roosevelt, were those advocating preparedness for possible involvement in the war in Europe. Others, notably Jane Addams of Chicago, opposed preparedness and any American involvement in a European war. In 1916 Roosevelt declined the presidential nomination of the Bull Moose Party and announced his support for the Republican ticket. Unable to agree on another nominee, the few remaining party leaders disbanded, most returning to the Republican Party, though several moved on to support Wilson and the Democrats.
See also: Addams, Jane (1860–1935) ; Great Society ; New Deal ; Obama, Barack, Populist Rhetoric of ; Progressivism ; Roosevelt, Franklin Delano (1882–1945) ; Roosevelt, Theodore (1858–1919)
Broderick, Francis L. Progressivism at Risk: Electing a President in 1912. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.
Gable, John A. The Bull Moose Years: Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Party. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1978.
Gould, Lewis L. Four Hats in the Ring: The 1912 Election and the Birth of Modern American Politics. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008.
Milkis, Sidney M. Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009.