Democrat and Incumbent Woodrow Wilson defeated Republican nominee Charles Evans Hughes in 1916 in one of the closest presidential elections in American history. Three main contributors to Wilson’ssuccess were women voters, Western states, and the Democratic stance on pacifism from WorldWar I. Picture
Wilson ran on a platform of preparedness for war, in the event the US was justifiably called to join, domestic prosperity, and peace. Wilson’s campaign was reinforced, most notably in the West, by William Jenngings Bryan, who despite having lost in three presidential elections, retained considerable influence. In fact, it was Bryan who coined the phrase at the Democratic Convention, “He kept us out of the war” a reference to Wilson’s ability to exclude the US from World War I. The phrase caught fire with Democrats at the Convention and became the primary slogan of the Democratic campaign.
The slogan was so effective in driving home a message that Teddy Roosevelt, who was campaigning for Hughes addressed it directly: “President Wilson’s ignoble shirking of responsibility has been misclothed in an utterly misleading phrase, the phrase of a coward, “He Kept Us Out of War.” In actual reality, war has been creeping nearer and nearer. . . and we face it without policy, plan, purpose, or preparation.” The irony of this is that Wilson was not in favor of the slogan in the first place for he agreed with Roosevelt that the possibilities of entering the war were ever increasing. This forward thinking led Wilson to deliver speeches expressing the importance of a “preparedness” for war, in the event the nation had to participate. Nonetheless, he came across as a pacifist. “Politically, Wilson’s Preparedness tour was a great success; but the ovations of the crowds who came out to hear him, particularly those in the Middle West, were in large measure for the President’s emphatic pledge to the United States out of the European war.”
Bryan contributed more than a phrase to Wilson’s cause, “…it is well to note that wherever Bryan campaigned, there the Democracy won. He is the miracle man of this year. He is a new Bryan of complete self-abnegation,” reported The New York Times. Although this statement is not completely accurate, in that Wilson did not win every state in which Bryan campaigned, it captures the essence of Bryan’s contribution to Wilson’s campaign. Bryan ran and lost in three presidential elections yet out of the 19 states in which he campaigned, Wilson won 18. He created the slogan “He kept us out of war” and helped establish the West as a dominant factor in presidential elections.
Another key contributor to Wilson’s victory was the role of women voters. Although the 19th Amendment granting universal women suffrage was not enacted until 1920, women could vote in 12 states by 1916, 11 of which went to Wilson. Women played a pivotal role in Wilson’s winning California, whose 13 electoral votes decided the outcome of the election. Wilson won California by only around 3,000 votes, with San Francisco proving to be the difference maker. “The women and the Progressives did the trick: the women in San Francisco voted for Wilson three to one,” noted the New York Times.
This election saw Bryan finally succeed in his efforts, women vote in a decisive manner in a Presidential election, and the West demonstrate it can make an impact. This election truly was a proving ground for many.