% vote results for every state at the bottom of the post.
1912 was one of the most exciting presidential elections in history. It featured a three-way race between incumbent Republican president William Howard Taft, former President Theodore Roosevelt (running under the banner of the Bull Moose, or Progressive, Party), and Democrat and New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson. Each of these three candidates won multiple states, with Taft winning two states and 23% of the national popular vote, Roosevelt carrying 6 states with 27% of the vote, and Wilson winning with 40 states and 42% of the national vote. But despite there already being three candidates in the race, this did not crowd out the vote for the fledgling Socialist Party under the banner of Eugene Debs, which scored its best result ever, getting 6% of the vote. This result was never surpassed by the Socialist party, which quickly began to decline and fade into obscurity with the start of World War 1 and the Red Scares to follow. Socialist candidate Eugene Debs first rose to prominence as the leader of the Pullman Railroad Strike, which mobilized hundreds of thousands of workers and paralyzed rail services throughout the nation. He then ran for president five times as the Socialist candidate, in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920, the last time running from a jail cell after being arrested for speaking out against World War 1.
The strongest socialist states in 1912 might seem very surprising today, with Nevada (today a swing state) and Oklahoma (which today is very conservative) topping the list with 16.5% and 16.4% of the vote respectively. The party was also strong in the rest of the Mountain and Pacific West, and had pockets of strength in the Great Lake states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ohio. The party was weakest in the South, with the exception of Florida and Texas. It’s worst result came in the Democratic dominated state of South Carolina, where Debs got only 0.33% of the vote.
Probably the most surprising and interesting socialist stronghold is Oklahoma, given the states incredibly conservative nature today. The Socialists in Oklahoma were a very agrarian party, and gained support among poor farmers tied to the sharecropping system, many of whom had been involved in the Farmers Alliance and had supported the Populist Party in the 1890s. The Oklahoma Socialist party developed a “Farmers Programme” which promised to relieve the agricultural crisis of the state, and also packaged it’s ideology with both patriotism (especially Thomas Jefferson’s rhetoric about the “common man”), and with protestant religion (claiming Jesus as the “first socialist”). These moves made Socialist ideology less alien and radical to the poor farmers of Oklahoma.
The Socialist Party peaked in Oklahoma during the elections of 1914, when over 175 socialists were elected to local and county offices, including six elected to the state legislature, while the Socialist candidate for governor received nearly 21% of the statewide vote. However, the start of World War 1 a few years later quickly led to the decline of the party. The Socialist Party opposed the war, and this resulted in both a natural loss of support among some of it’s rural and patriotic followers in Oklahoma, and to local and state authorities cracking down harshly on the party, shutting down Socialist newspapers and disbanding local organizations. This crack down was legitimized by the “Green Corn Rebellion”, a 1917 uprising by a left-wing group of tenant farmers called the Working Class Union in protest of the war and the draft. The Rebellion was crushed by police, and the Socialist Party was effectively suppressed for the next decade.
The Socialist Party in Nevada has not been studied as much as the Oklahoma party, but it’s support likely resulted from voters familiarity with previous third-parties as well as labor radicalism among miners in the state. Nevada gave 66% of the vote to the Populists in the 1892 presidential election, mostly due to the Populists support for bimetallism, while the Silver Party dominated state politics from 1896 to 1911. Nevada’s past support for insurgent third-parties led to voters being more open to Socialist party appeals. Additionally, the state was a hotbed of Wobblies (members of the International Workers of the World, a radical labor organization), who spread many socialist views. The Wobblies initiated a huge strike among miners in the town of Goldfield, which was crushed by the federal government. This was just one of many strikes, with the labor radicalism of miners in Nevada making them much more likely to support the Socialists.
A similar story could be told throughout the West, where past support for the Populist Party and the influence of labor groups led to strong results for the Socialist Party. This support faded as it traveled East, as Eastern States were more firmly entrenched in the two-party system established in the Civil War era. The South was the weakest area for the Socialists, as these states were not truly democratic but restricted the votes of both blacks as well as some poor whites. Deep South states like South Carolina suppressed attempts by Republicans to establish two-party democracy, and likewise did not allow third-parties to compete on a fair playing field.
Results by State:
|Socialist (Debs) %||Democratic (Wilson) %||Progressive (Roosevelt) %||Taft (Republican) %|