By Michael Malaszczyk
"Is there anyone on stage — and can I see hands? — who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican Party, and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person?”
That was a question that Bret Baier, of Fox News, asked 10 presidentially hopeful Republicans at a debate in August 2015. On the stage, only one person raised his hand — Donald Trump. The rest is history. Trump won the 2016 primary, and we didn’t have to endure an election in which Trump ran as a third-party candidate after losing. But we could be approaching that scenario soon.
I imagine that if televised debates existed in 1912, then former President Theodore Roosevelt would have had a similar response to that question. Roosevelt was running against his successor, William Howard Taft — whom he had handpicked, but with whose results as president Roosevelt was disappointed.
What did Teddy Roosevelt and Donald Trump have in common? Ego. It’s hard for anyone to get a word in edgewise with Trump, and historical accounts suggest a similar phenomenon with Roosevelt. They also had something in common that’s even more important for an election: a dedicated following that was loyal to them over any party. Both have been described as presidents who had “cults of personality.” Trump’s is apparent every day. I have yet to see a truck drive by with 20 bumper stickers and two flags praising President Biden. Roosevelt’s still manifests to this day in some ways. When talking politics, you can say “Teddy” and everyone knows who you’re talking about.
Of course, Roosevelt and Trump are complete opposites on the political spectrum. Teddy was seen as a progressive leader for his time, while Trump is considered right wing. But as former presidents with ambitions of returning to the White House, the similarities between Roosevelt, in 1912, and Trump, in 2023, can’t be ignored.
Trump’s path to next year’s nomination is questionable — many Republicans have made it clear that they want nothing more to do with him. Ever since the candidates he backed performed poorly in November’s midterms, Trump’s lead over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in polls has shrunk. Even more concerning for Trump is that these are multi-candidate polls in which he holds a plurality. If other candidates drop out and throw their weight behind DeSantis, Trump is in trouble.
But given his apparent inability to concede fair elections, it’s difficult to imagine Trump bowing out of the race and endorsing DeSantis against Biden. A more feasible scenario is Trump running as a third-party candidate.
That would be great news for Biden.
In 1912, Taft won the Republican nomination over Roosevelt, but refusing to concede, Roosevelt ran under the banner of the Bull Moose Party.
The result? The quiet, reserved Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson, swept the election. Despite winning only 41 percent of the popular vote, Wilson received 435 electoral votes and carried 40 states. Roosevelt finished second, with 88 electoral votes. Taft won only eight.
Taft’s and Roosevelt’s votes combined would have crushed Wilson. But the Republicans couldn’t unite, and the Democrat pulled off a landslide.
The parallels with 2024 aren’t all the same. There was a Republican incumbent in 1912; next year it will be a Democrat. And views on the issues were different than they are now. Economically, Wilson would be to the left of Bernie Sanders, but socially, he’d be to the right of Marjorie Taylor Greene.
But the parallels are too significant to ignore — most notably, the Roosevelt and Trump diehard voters. And Taft was a respected leader who had once been seen as the heir to Roosevelt’s legacy. DeSantis is a well-known governor who is seen by many as a successor to Trump as the leader of his movement. Wilson may have been lacking in adoring fans, but he had the votes to win — like Biden may.
Republicans in 1912 couldn’t rally around the winner of their primary because one candidate with an ego refused to lose. And if the vote for speaker of the House 111 years later showed us anything, it’s that the divisions in today’s Republican Party over Donald Trump consist of a lot more than personal disagreements. In a three-way, Biden-DeSantis-Trump scenario, only Biden, and a unified Democratic Party, stand to gain.
Republicans are not one party right now. No promises have been made on their end to ensure that Biden won’t coast to victory. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Republicans had better get it together, and fast, or they’ll be “Woodrow Wilsoned” by Biden in 2024.
Michael Malaszczyk is a Herald reporter covering Wantagh and Seaford. Comments about this column? firstname.lastname@example.org.