Lessons from the 1912 Republican Convention: Birth of the Modern Primary

The animosity between William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt changed the primary process forever.

The animosity between William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt – who were at one point in time good friends – was palpable, with insults like puzzlewit and honeyfugler being thrown about. Their battle transformed the primary process and American politics forever.

For teachers
  • Producer: Matthew Spolar
  • Editor: Amy Lee Hochman

For Educators


This four-minute video provides students with an introduction to the election of 1912 and the emergence of the progressive Bull Moose party, named for Roosevelt’s saying after an assassination attempt that he was “fit as a bull moose” to become president again. Focusing on Theodore Roosevelt’s decision to challenge President William Taft for the 1912 Republican Party nomination, the video shows students how the newly created system of direct primaries affected the race, and how Roosevelt’s failure to wrest the nomination from Taft resulted in the formation of the short-lived Bull Moose party. The video is useful for lessons focused on the election of 1912, or for lessons focused on the political reforms of the progressive era.

Background reading

The presidential election of 1912 was a rare climactic political contest: one that challenged the nation’s voters to reflect on the effectiveness of American democracy, the role of the federal government in addressing the nation’s problems, and their constitutional rights, quality of life, and standard of living. This election took place amid the emergence of profound changes and challenges in American society, posed by growing industrialization, immigration and urbanization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It’s one thing for a presidential candidate to win a lot of primaries. It’s another to win the nomination. Theodore Roosevelt learned that lesson in 1912 when a string of victories in the first presidential primaries gave him a clear shot at the Republican nomination and the White House. Roosevelt had decided not to pursue a third term in 1908, and turned the party over to his vice president, William Howard Taft. By 1912, it seemed clear to Roosevelt that Taft had shed his progressive ideology and was bowing to big business: Roosevelt was determined to unseat him. Taft was backed by the party bosses, so Roosevelt’s only chance to pick up delegates was in the presidential primaries, which were being held for the first time in the nation’s history. After a slow start, Roosevelt wound up trouncing Taft by sweeping 9 of the 13 states that held primaries that year. He arrived at the convention just 50 votes short of the nomination. But the party bosses stuck with Taft, and after he won the nomination, Roosevelt and his progressive followers walked out to form the Bull Moose Progressive Party. Its platform of progressive initiatives, including social security, national healthcare and an end to child labor, would later become the central tenets of the Democratic Party. Roosevelt soundly trounced Taft in the 1912 presidential election, but lost to Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic candidate who controlled the White House until 1920.

Lesson Plan 1: 1912 Republican Convention – TR Starts the Bull Moose Party

Students will learn how former President Theodore Roosevelt used the newly created direct primary system to challenge incumbent President William Howard Taft for the Republican Party’s nomination in 1912.


Students will:

  • Analyze and assess the causes and consequences of the division within the Republican Party over the issues of Progressive reform, presidential power, and the meaning of “the general welfare”.
  • Summarize, compare and contrast, and draw logical inferences from primary source documents regarding the 1912 election.
  • Collaborate with peers in pairs and/or small groups to discuss, analyze, and assess text and visual primary source documents.
  • Develop a position and present a viewpoint based on historical evidence.
Essential questions
  • To what extent did the presidential election of 1912 reflect the strengths and shortcomings of American democracy?
  • To what extent did the campaign rhetoric in the presidential election of 1912 reflect the major issues and problems facing American society during the early 20th century?
  • How did the outcome of the presidential election of 1912 influence the Progressive reform movement and enhance the power of the federal government?
  • How does a political “third party” affect the outcome of a presidential election?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.4:Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.9:Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.2:Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D1.4.9-12.Explain how supporting questions contribute to an inquiry and how, through engaging source work, new compelling and supporting questions emerge.
    • D2.His.1.9-12.Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
    • D2.His.5.9-12.Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape people’s perspectives.
    • D3.1.6-8.Gather relevant information from multiple sources while using the origin, authority, structure, context, and corroborative value of the sources to guide the selection.
    • D4.1.6-8.Construct arguments using claims and evidence from multiple sources, while acknowledging the strengths and limitations of the arguments.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Period 7: 1890-1945
  • AP Government and Politics
    • Unit 5: Political Participation