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Studies in Midwestern History

Document Type

Article

Abstract

Historians long rated William Howard Taft’s campaigning ability during the 1908 presidential contest as below average and in need of Theodore Roosevelt’s resuscitation. Recently, they have given Taft more credit for his electioneering appearances. Taft’s ability to teach out to voters was vital to his candidacy because he ran at a time in American political history when the ability to deliver charismatic speeches and shake hands was put at a premium by larger-than-life candidates such as Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, and Eugene Debs.

Taft toured several regions during the campaign, including the Midwest, the South, the Mid-Atlantic, and New England. Historians have not paid enough attention to the importance of the Republican candidate’s initial, Midwestern swing in shaping him as a candidate; Taft modeled himself into a great campaigner while touring the region before he went anywhere else. He delivered charismatic speeches, personably shook hands, conducted brief, private conversations with onlookers, gained confidence in his appearance, and received favorable press coverage while touring in Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Kansas, and Missouri.

The Republican’s swing around the region is even more important when considering Bryan’s strategy. The Boy Orator could bank on winning the Solid South, but he also needed to win one or two states in the Northeast or the Midwest. The Democrat knew that his populist rhetoric would resonate more effectively with farmers and rural residents in the Midwest than with laborers in the East. This made Taft’s tour of the Midwest even more pivotal.

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