Wilson won the Democratic nomination for governor on the first ballot, and his acceptance speech at the state convention electrified the delegates. Wilson claimed that he would be single-minded in his pursuit of serving the citizens of New Jersey. The campaign for governor was interesting in that Wilson still had a university to run, and he had to work his campaign around his obligations at Princeton. On 20 October 1910, Wilson submitted his resignation to the Board of Trustees at Princeton; Wilson was allowed to used the President's mansion for the rest of the semester, and he was honored with Princeton's greatest award, the Doctor of Laws degree. Wilson said that he would get out of the mansion after the campaign, and that he would forego the remainder of his salary as President of Princeton.
Governor-Elect Wilson soon found himself at odds with the state's party machine bosses over who the legislature should send to the US Senate (before the 17th Amendment, state legislatures selected their own US Senators). On 17 January 1911, Wilson was inaugurated as the Governor of New Jersey, and soon was able to garner enough support to get a non-machine candidate appointed to the US Senate. As he did when he became President of Princeton, Governor Wilson proposed a sweeping agenda of reform, with many items geared towards limiting the power of monopolies and election reform.
Without announcing his intention to run for President, the tide of Progressivism took Wilson's name to the forefront in the national Democratic Party. In 1911, the elder statesman of the Democratic Party was William Jennings Bryan, who was ironically four years younger than Wilson. While Bryan was not going to win the party's nomination in 1912, he would be key in determining who would. After a dinner with Wilson, Bryan became a Wilson fan, and Wilson was a fan of Bryan's. Wilson's successes in New Jersey had made him a national political figure by the Spring of 1911, and by then Wilson had become a true Progressive reformer.
House became a conduit for Wilson, talking to influential people such as Bryan, whom House had known for over a decade. Within a year, Wilson told others that House was his second personality. In New Jersey, Princeton selected a President that Wilson believed was a step back for the university, the Republicans won back both houses in the state legislature, and Wilson vetoed over 40 bills, which enraged the state's Republican Party. Even so, Wilson was able to get Progressive legislation passed, enhancing his standing as a reformer governor.
For the first time before a Democratic National Convention, several states used primary elections to pledge delegates to candidates. Wilson had to forego some state primaries (such as Missouri and Alabama) since their Favorite Son candidates were a lock to win, and in the primaries he ran, Wilson basically got clobbered, and there was no momentum gained. But some states went Wilson's way: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Jersey, even with the state's party bosses working against him. Not since 1860 had the Democratic Party been so divided in terms of selecting a candidate to run for President.
After the first ballot, Wilson was behind 440 to 324, and Wilson agreed to keep his name in the ring instead of withdrawing his name as a candidate, which kept his candidates pledged to him. As more ballots were taken, Wilson was advised by his representatives at the convention (the tradition was that candidates were not at the convention) that he had gained momentum and the delegate leader had peaked. Among the delegates on the floor of the convention that laid claim to shifting momentum in favor of Wilson was a state senator from New York, Franklin Roosevelt (he made over 300 campaign buttons for Wilson and created much hooplah).
On the 30th ballot, Wilson inched ahead, and finally, on the 46th ballot, Wilson surpassed the 2/3's mark with 990 delegates. House offered his services to Wilson to help be sure that a likely victory in the upcoming Presidential Election in 1912 wouldn't be lost. On 7 August 1912, Wilson, in front of thousands in New Jersey, officially accepted the Democratic nomination with an acceptance speech (which was the tradition in those days).
Not since the Election of 1860 had four candidates run for President: Wilson (Democrat), former President Theodore Roosevelt (the Progressive Party, a.k.a. the "Bull Moose Party"),
President William Howard Taft (Republican), and Eugene V. Debs (Socialist). In 1912, all media was local, so in order to effectively campaign, a candidate had to set "small fires" across the nation, which meant many speeches in big cities and on the train on what was called Whistle-Stop Tours. President Taft didn't actively campaign (believing he would lose), and Debs wasn't able to nationally campaign, so the election in effect came down to Wilson and Roosevelt. Wilson was the novelty that Americans came to see, since TR was a known political personality. Wilson was able to stir the moral and political convictions of millions of American voters, far more so than TR.
TR's campaign focused on histrionics and hyperbole, while Wilson quietly converted citizens to followers. Wilson had a rare skill set, an intellectual politician that had charm and charisma, which connected him to the voter. After TR was shot in Milwaukee and needed to stop his campaign for two weeks, Wilson refused to campaign until TR returned to the hustings. As the general campaign wound down, TR spoke to a huge crowd at Madison Square Garden to thunderous applause, and Wilson spoke the next day at the Garden to an even greater reception. On Election Day, Wilson carried all but 8 states: TR won 6, while President Taft carried Utah and Vermont. Wilson's 435 Electoral Votes were the highest number ever to that point in a Presidential Election even though his popular vote total was only 41.9% (a majority was basically impossible with four candidates). In only 658 days after becoming a politician, Wilson had been elected President of the United States.
Wilson's victory had coattails, in that Democrats in the House of Representatives added to their majority with 61 additional seats, and even though states still "selected" their US Senators, the Democrats had an advantage of 7 in the Senate. Wilson was the first Democratic President in 20 years (since Grover Cleveland, elected in 1884 and 1892), and the first Southerner elected President since Zachary Taylor in 1848. An additional item that had Wilson very much looking forward to his time in the White House: Colonel House would continue as his main political adviser.