Saturday, January 30, 2016

The History of Primaries and Caucuses

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

It is a well established tradition that becoming President requires campaigning in early caucus and primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.  All presidential candidates head out to the early States to garner support.  But this was not always the case.  In fact, selecting Presidential candidates this way is a relatively new process.  For most of US history, there were no primary elections.  They did not become the primary selection method until less than 50 years ago.

Early Elections

The Constitution says nothing about political parties, primaries, anything else about how one gets to be a candidate for President.  The nation's founders, in fact, despised political parties.  They saw them as dangerously creating divisive factions in the country.  They were not wrong on that point.

But by the time Thomas Jefferson became President in 1801 though, the country was well on its way to having two established political parties.  Even so, they still had no established method for a party to choose its candidates.  Members of Congress and State government leaders informally decided among themselves who should stand as the Party's candidate.  Often, State legislatures would nominate a local candidate.  For example, Andrew Jackson started his 1828 campaign by being nominated by the Tennessee legislature.  It was also considered taboo for a candidate to seek the nomination himself.  Doing so smacked of being power hungry and therefore a possible threat to the Republic.  Such a candidate might try to make himself King.  Nominations and campaigns were run through proxies.  Candidates spoke little if at all themselves during the campaign.

The First Conventions

By the 1820's the informal selection process became too unwieldy.  In September 1831, the first National  political convention took place in Baltimore.  Like many political innovations, this convention was the creation of a minor party.  The "Anti-masonic" party which opposed the influence of the Masons in government, met at a national convention to select a candidate for the 1832 elections.  Only 10 States out of 24 even sent delegates, with 96 in total attending.  They selected William Wirt, who ironically had once been a Mason.

Only a couple of months later, the "National Republican" party, a forerunner of the Whig party met, also in Baltimore to select someone to run against Democratic President Andrew Jackson.  Only 18 of the 24 States bothered to send 135 delegates.  They selected Henry Clay, who had stood as a candidate in the 1828 elections as well.  Clay did not need a Convention to get the party behind him.  His nomination was obvious before the Convention started. The convention served as a tool to energize party leaders and make the process a little more transparent.

That same campaign season, in May 1832, the Democratic Party also held its first national convention, also in Baltimore. The city of Baltimore was popular mostly because it was close to DC, since most delegates were members of Congress.  DC itself did not have many large non-governmental buildings at the time to serve as convention halls.  Baltimore was also a relatively central location between the northern and southern states.

Since Andrew Jackson was running for a second term, the nomination was a foregone conclusion. The main purpose of the Convention was to select a new Vice Presidential candidate.  The incumbent Vice President John C. Calhoun, had proven not to be a team player with the Administration.  The Convention selected New York politician Martin Van Buren to run with Jackson on the Democratic ticket.

National Conventions caught on in a big way, held every four years by the major parties, and most minor parties as well.  They quickly became a fundamental part of the campaign process. But there was still no established way to select delegates to the convention.  For the most part, delegates were political and party leaders meeting to work out a deal.  In some cases, they simply showed up themselves at the convention.  In other cases, they were selected by local party leaders or by local State conventions, which again were simply gatherings of local politicians and party leaders.

The First Presidential Primaries

Political primaries, that is actually holding an election to pick convention delegates was a 20th century invention.  Florida passed the first Presidential primary law in 1901, to be used for the 1904 elections.  The innovation took off relatively quickly.  By the 1912 elections, most States had some sort of election process in place to select delegates.  Many Primaries served as statewide polls that just gave input to party leaders on voter preferences.  In most States the political parties ran the primaries without State governments playing any role in the process.

Over the next few decades, not much happened with primaries.  Some states even abandoned them citing high costs and low voter participation.  Party bosses remained in control of the nominations and voters did not see the primary votes as more then window dressing.

It was not until after WWII that primaries began to play more of a serious role in Presidential elections.  Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-TN) entered all 15 primaries held in 1952, winning 11 of them.  He hoped that his primary success would convince political bosses to hand him the nomination. His early wins did convince President Truman not to seek a third term.  However, the political bosses were not impressed and nominated Adlai Stevenson, who was in turn trounced by Dwight Eisenhower.  Primaries still remained relatively unpopular.  Political bosses controlled who the nominee would be.

Primaries could sometimes have an influence.  For example, John Kennedy proved he could win southern Protestant support, despite being a Catholic, by entering and winning the West Virginia Primary in 1960.  Even so, despite winning 10 of the 14 primaries held that year, Kennedy almost lost the nomination to Lyndon Johnson who had not entered nor won a single primary.

The Disaster of 1968

The real changes came after the 1968 elections.  The 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago was an unmitigated disaster.  New Hampshire, one of the few primary States, handed incumbent President Lyndon Johnson a very disappointing result.  Shortly after that, Johnson decided not to run for reelection, throwing the field into chaos.  Robert Kennedy entered the race as a favorite, only to be shot and killed in June while campaigning.

The party became hopelessly fractured.  There was already a rift between the civil rights position of northern Democrats and the segregationist southern Democrats. If that was not enough, young people were strongly opposed to the war in Vietnam and wanted a peace candidate.  The political bosses got behind Vice President Hubert Humphrey as the Convention nominee.  Humphrey, who had not won a single primary, had recently voiced some opposition over the War, but had largely supported the Administration's Vietnam policies over the prior four years.  Peace activists were not happy and protested the convention.  When the Chicago police used violence, captured on national television, to suppress the protests, an internal civil war broke out in the convention itself.

Humphrey left the Convention as a weak candidate opposed by much of his own party.  Young people opposed to the war either voted Republican or stayed home.  Southerners, opposed to Humphrey's support of Civil Rights, voted for southerner George Wallace.  The result was an easy and overwhelming victory for Republican Richard Nixon.

Modern Era Primary Reforms 

In the wake of this disastrous defeat, the Democrats decided to introduce some major reforms. Although many of these reforms impacted how the conventions would be run, they also stressed the importance of taking into account primary results in selecting the nominee.  State delegations had to be selected by primary or some other process that was open to all members of the State party.  If party bosses ignored the wishes of the voters, that would only need to further losses in the national elections.  Primaries were seen as a way to guarantee popular support.  All fifty States held a primary or caucus in 1972 for the first time.

Despite the increased participation, the party remained hopelessly divided in 1972.  George McGovern won the most State primaries, while Humphrey won the most primary votes overall.  Party bosses deeply opposed McGovern, who had been in charge of many of the reforms that helped him ultimately win the election at the divided Convention.  Without the enthusiastic support of party leaders, McGovern went on to hand the Party its worst loss in history, up until that time.

With all the States holding Primaries, there were more efforts to organize their scheduling.  New rules required that all States hold their elections between March and June of the Presidential election year. Two exceptions were made for the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire Primary, which were permitted to earlier contests

The Iowa Caucus

Iowa became first mostly by accident.  It retained a caucus rather than a primary. After the 1968 elections, party rules required that all aspects of candidate selection be opened to all members of the party. Iowa had a four part selection process.  There had to be a precinct caucus, which selected delegates to a county convention, which in turn sent delegates to a district convention, which then sent delegates to a State convention, which would in turn select delegates to go to the national convention.  There had to be at least a 30 day period in between each step of the process.  This meant the precinct caucuses had to be held in February at the latest in order to have delegates at the national convention in July.  To ensure proper time, the Caucuses for 1972 were held in late January.

They were so early that year, that few people in the press even paid much attention.  The candidates mostly ignored Iowa in 1972 and it was a non-event nationally.  All that changed, however, in 1976. A young relatively unknown Governor named Jimmy Carter decided to run for President.  In 1973, he appeared on the Game Show "What's My Line?"  No one on the panel could guess who he was or what he did for quite some time.  He was really unknown.

Carter completed his single term as Governor of Georgia in January 1975.  He had already begun making plans to run for President.  As a relative unknown, he decided that if he could win the Iowa Caucus, that would give him the national recognition he would need to continue on through the process to the nomination.  As a result, Carter spent most of 1975 in Iowa meeting with locals and talking about what he would do as President.  Since no other candidates were in Iowa, Carter was able to win over support one voter at a time.

The strategy worked.  Carter won more votes than any other candidate in a wide open field, garnering 27% of the vote.  The next highest candidate, Birch Bayh received less than half that, 13%.  Of course "uncommitted" won the race with 37%.  But the fact that an unknown southern former Governor could win the State, set off a press frenzy around the Carter campaign.  It gave him the national recognition he needed to win the future primaries, the party nomination, and eventually the White House.

Following the 1976 elections, all serious candidates have made at least some effort to make a good showing in Iowa.  Although the Iowa Caucus does not often pick the candidate who ultimately wins the nomination, It has become the de facto process for winnowing down the field.  If you don't finish in the top three in Iowa, your campaign is pretty much over. Only one candidate has ever gone on to win the nomination after a fourth place finish in Iowa (John McCain in 2008).  Technically, I suppose, Bill Clinton finished fourth in 1992, behind two other candidates as well as "uncommitted". But he was running against an Iowa Senator (Tom Harkin).  Since Harkin would presumably win his home State, Clinton did not spend much time there.

New Hampshire Primary

New Hampshire had been one of the few primary states long before the 1968 reforms.  It has held a Presidential primary since 1916.  Beginning in 1920, it became the first primary for the election year. For many years, this was simply the way things worked out.  Most States did not have primaries. Those that did usually had them in late spring or early summer.  New Hampshire soon realized that being first meant that it got noticed more.  The State eventually passed a law requiring that the State hold the first primary in each Presidential election.  The primary, once held in mid March, eventually got pushed back to early February, and sometimes late January, in order to be first.

The 1968 reforms recognized New Hampshire's need to be first and granted the State an exception to the requirement that all primaries be held in March or later.  With this one State exception, it guaranteed New Hampshire continued prominence in the election process.  States have since tried to find ways to push their primaries in advance of New Hampshire, but the Parties have not allowed it. Limits on early primaries too many months before the convention were designed to prevent the campaign process from being stretched over too long a period and allowing for intervening events to make an early choice problematic.  As a result, New Hampshire remains the first primary outside of the main primary season, usually a week or two after the Iowa Caucus.

Later Reforms

Changes have continued as South Carolina has been given "early State" status in order to be more inclusive of Southern voters.  As more and more states want to hold early primaries within the allowed limits the tradition of "Super Tuesday" has arisen on the first Tuesday within the dates permitted by party rules.

You may have noticed that I have primarily focused on the Democratic Party while discussing the development of primaries and caucuses.  The reality is that most of the reforms have been the result of Democratic Party Reforms.  The Republicans have generally followed the same process.  Since State laws instituted primary elections for both parties, both adopted most of the changes at relatively the same time.

Today the primaries and a few caucuses dominate the selection process.  It is almost always the case that a candidate is chosen by receiving enough delegates to secure a majority at the convention long before the convention takes place.  As a result, conventions have largely become attempts by the Parties to advertise themselves, their platform and their candidates.

Both parties have "superdelegates" which is the polite name given to modern day party bosses. These are delegates beyond those chosen in the primaries.  They usually make up elected officials and State party leaders, as well as members of the national Party Committees.  As currently selected, Superdelegates are new.  They are the result of reforms for the 1984 elections after Democratic leaders decided that too much popular input had led to weak candidates in recent elections.  Even so, superdelegates have never rejected the choice of the primary voters.

Conventions Become Irrelevant

Since the 1968 reforms, only one Convention was ever really in question.  In 1976 incumbent President Ford faced a challenge from Gov. Ronald Reagan   Ford had the most primary votes but not an outright majority.  Still, Ford was able to win on the first ballot.  In 1980, Ted Kennedy attempted to take the nomination from incumbent Jimmy Carter, who had won a slim majority of delegates, by trying to encourage delegates to jump ship and oppose the will of the primary voters.  In the end though, Carter was nominated on the first ballot.  In 1984, candidate Walter Mondale was just a few votes short of a majority of primary selected delegates.  But his closest competitor Gary Hart, never mounted a serious convention challenge

In 2008 a close primary election between Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama led to a possible convention fight.  Obama had won a majority of primary votes.  But Florida and Michigan did not receive any delegate votes that year.  Both States had attempted to hold primaries in advance of New Hampshire, in violation of Party rules.  Clinton had campaigned heavily in both States and had won substantial majorities in those illegal primaries.  Clinton argued that the delegates should be given their vote.  Clinton had also secured pledges from a large number of superdelegates.  However, as the primary season came to an end, superdelegates were unwilling to overturn the will of the primary voters and largely defected from Clinton to Obama.  As a result, the nominee was decided before the Convention opened.


As much as we like to think about our electoral process as a tradition.  A voter from fifty years ago would hardly recognize the primary process today.  A voter from 100 years ago would likely be shocked to see that primaries even play a significant role.  A voter from 200 years ago (still 40 years after the Declaration of Independence) likely would be surprised to see the use of political parties or conventions.  Many of our traditions are younger than most of our senior citizens alive today.  It remains an evolving process with new changes in each election.

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

Further Reading

The First American Political Conventions

Choosing the Nominee: How Presidential Primaries Came To Be and Their Future in American Politics

Iowa Caucus Rules

Why is the New Hampshire Primary so Important?

The Primary Experience: Jimmy Who?

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