With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Comparing the Trump – DeSantis Race to the Republicans' 1912 Debacle is a Stretch... Right?

Leonard Raven-Hill, "For Auld Lang Syne" from Punch, 1912

And they’re off. With just a year and a half to go, Ron DeSantis has finally thrown his hat into the ring. Now the race for the GOP nomination truly begins. Nikki Haley, Asa Hutchinson, and a variety of other runners and riders are there but, for most people, this is a two-horse race between Donald Trump and DeSantis. This potential head-to-head has been a long time coming, and some think that DeSantis has left it too late. DeSantis was well ahead of Trump in GOP opinion polls shortly after the 2022 midterms, but now Trump has a commanding lead. However, we shouldn’t forget that a lot can change between now and November 2024.

Let’s go back a little, to see how polling looked for Trump in 2011 and 2015 (around a year and a half out from the presidential elections of 2012 and 2016).

In April 2011, Trump led a poll of GOP primary voters with 26 percent, more than ten points ahead of eventual nominee Mitt Romney. Much of this “Trump bump” was linked to his high-profile “birther” campaign demanding to see President Obama’s birth certificate. However, once Obama produced the document, Trump’s numbers swiftly dissipated, and he decided not to run. Conversely, In June 2015, Trump polled just 1 percent, leaving him in eleventh place out of 16 candidates in a survey of GOP primary voters. Of course, Trump looks to be in a much stronger position at the end of May 2023, with polls of primary voters putting him at over 50 percent and DeSantis trailing with around half of that. But remember, Trump won the nomination in 2016 despite polling at only 1 percent at the same stage of the nomination campaign, and his numbers collapsed when he had gathered a significant lead four years earlier.

So, let’s imagine, just for argument’s sake, that DeSantis stays the course. We get a broad slate of candidates (as we did in 2015-2016), and Trump isn’t the outright winner come the Republican National Convention. Let’s stretch our imaginations even further to see the GOP Convention tightly contested so that, in the end, DeSantis gets the nomination by the narrowest of margins. Trump, spurned, storms out and decides to run independently under the banner of the “Truth Party.” Come November, Trump picks up a number of states he won in 2020, and DeSantis takes Florida and a handful of flyover states for the GOP. Meanwhile, Biden wins by a mile, as the divided Republican vote lands him easy wins in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Ohio, and he even sneaks by in Texas. It’s an outlandish scenario, but for those of you with a long memory, it’s not quite the frantic fever-dream of a teacher overcome by too much grading that it might seem. I take you back to 1912….

In February 1912 – election year – Theodore Roosevelt (Republican president from 1901-1909) formally challenged the incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft for the GOP nomination. In Roosevelt’s mind, he had made Taft’s career; TR had appointed Taft to his cabinet while president and handpicked Taft as his successor. Roosevelt campaigned for Taft in 1908, had photographs taken with him, went the whole nine yards. In many ways TR felt he won the election for Taft. Yet, while in office, Taft disappointed Roosevelt. Always a larger-than-life personality, retirement was never really going to be TR’s favored path.

The 1912 Republican nomination campaign turned nasty. Roosevelt launched several stinging attacks on Taft. Taft, a TR true-believer and former friend, was wounded and was slow to resort to the same sort of name-calling as Roosevelt. The stage was set for a close race, and the result went down to the wire. That June, though, Taft wrested the nomination from Roosevelt at the convention. Roosevelt cried foul play, a corrupt stitch-up! He stormed out of the convention and weeks later ran a third-party “Bull Moose” campaign under the banner of the Progressive Party.

The 1912 election became a three-horse race – though special mention should go to five-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party, Eugene Debs, who received over 900,000 votes (from a total vote of just over 15 million). Roosevelt won 88 Electoral College votes, including large states like Pennsylvania, while Taft got the measly 8 votes of Utah and Vermont. Between them, the erstwhile allies got over 50 percent of the popular vote, but the Electoral College saw Democrat Woodrow Wilson win in a landslide, with 435 votes out of 531.

As ever with these historical parallels, there are innumerable other variables that don’t mirror the past anywhere near as well. However, this comparison is not so much aiming to suggest that 2024 might be a full repeat of 1912, as to offer a glimpse into the danger that a full split could cause for the GOP if DeSantis and Trump really did divide the vote come November 2024.

Trump and DeSantis started as allies. Many, including Trump, felt that Trump’s backing won the Florida gubernatorial race for DeSantis in 2018. DeSantis appeared to be a Trump true-believer. Trump did not want to retire quietly, and he doesn’t seem to like how DeSantis has “betrayed” him. They are now running against each other for the nomination, and Trump has been criticising “Ron DeSanctimonious” for months, while DeSantis has remained largely passive in his response. There is an echo of the past here for sure, even if it’s a faint one thus far.

However, if things were to go the course, and the Convention looked like it might be decisive… if the remaining court cases against Trump were to go against him, and the Republican Party threw its weight behind DeSantis to narrowly deny Trump the nomination… then it does not seem quite so far-fetched that Trump could run as an independent. Maybe, just maybe, 2024 might see more echoes of 1912 when it arrives. If so, then President Biden will no doubt be happily ordering copies of James Chace’s 1912 or Lewis Gould’s Four Hats in the Ring, and merrily assessing his chances in a three-horse race come next November.