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Why Does America Have Primaries?

With primary season underway, our resident historian examines the origins and role of primary elections in American politics and the intensification of American partisanship.

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“We’re going to go f***ing scorched-earth [during the primary],” promised Jay Walker, an adviser to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp who decisively defeated Trump-backed former Sen. David Perdue in Georgia's Republican gubernatorial primary.
(Curtis Compton/TNS)
You can listen to the companion audio version of this and other essays in the series using the player below or on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsStitcher or Audible.



It’s Primary season in America, with all the chaos, expense, and bombast that phenomenon has come to represent in our national political life. The major media now give more attention to off-year primary elections in half a dozen battleground states than they gave to the quadrennial general national election a generation ago. As if they were interpreting the Tarot or reading tea leaves or deconstructing a Papal Encyclical, the myriad pundits hover near the cameras and microphones to pontificate about slight distinctions between in-person day of the election voting, in-person prior to the election voting, mail-in ballots, overseas ballots, military ballots, counts, recounts, automatic recounts, audits, hand recounts, and all the attendant election lawsuits.

It seems that almost every election now is too close to call, yet that does not in any way stop the incessant chatter of the punditry. It is a billion-dollar circus, months before the general election, and critics insist that it gives us worse not better government. The original purpose of primaries, they say, was to make government more responsive to the will of the American people. Instead, they argue, primaries have hijacked government on behalf of righteous and angry extremists of both parties.

The Atlantic’s Nick Troiano puts it this way: “A small minority of Americans decide the significant majority of our elections in partisan primaries that disenfranchise voters, distort representation, and fuel extremism––on both the left and, most acutely (at present), the right.”

How’d we get here?

Primaries are never mentioned in the Constitution of the United States, and the Founding Fathers would almost certainly have rejected the idea in Philadelphia in 1787, if some misguided lover of democracy had been in attendance and proposed that electoral procedure. The Founders emphatically wanted some filtering mechanisms between the people (invoked with respect in rhetoric, but regarded as a volatile and undeserving mob in practice) and the eventual outcome. That’s why they wanted U.S. Senators to be elected by state legislatures, not by the people, insisted on property qualifications for white male voters (the only voters that mattered), and created an Electoral College to stand between “the people” and their popular choice for President. Primaries are an electoral reform introduced more than a century later during the Progressive Era.

An Early Season of Reform: Initiative, Referendum, and Recall


Primaries appeared on the scene at the same time as initiative, referendum, and recall. Initiative permits the citizens of a state to gather enough signatures to put a proposed law on the ballot to be voted on at the next general election. In many instances then and now, legislatures have been slow to respond to the will of the people, have refused to take up legislation proposed by individuals and interest groups, and have rejected popular reforms out of hand. The idea of initiative was to open a “people’s path” to legislation when a stodgy or do-nothing legislature refused to respond. According to the Progressive theory, since the people are sovereign and the source of all legislative authority, initiative merely takes back to them the right to see their will enacted in law, with or in this case without participation by a formal legislative body.

Referendum permits the people, after the necessarily gathering of petitions, to vote to uphold or overturn a law duly passed by a legislature. If the state legislature of speed limit-free Montana set a new Interstate highway speed of 15 miles per hour, for example, the people of Montana could refer that law and overturn it themselves at the next election.

Recall was designed to give the people the authority to remove from office someone who needed to go—before his or her term was over. Legislators have the power to remove a problematic official by impeachment, the people can do so by recall. The most famous recent case of recall in America was California Governor Gray Davis on October 7, 2003, removed by 55.4 percent of the votes cast. That vacuum was filled six weeks later by Arnold Schwarzenegger in a recall replacement election. Back in 1988, a recall was approved by Arizona voters against Governor Evan Mecham, but he was impeached and convicted before it got on the ballot. Recalls are increasingly common in American political life, usually in the lower echelons of the system (school boards, city commissions, etc.), but few of these recall campaigns are successful.
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Recalled former California governor Grey Davis (Left), the man who replaced him, Arnold Schwarzenegger (Center), and recalled former Arizona Governor Evan Mecham (Right).
(UCLA/ express.co/ NGA)
These progressive innovations have been adopted by most of the states, but they have no validity in the national arena. Presidents can be impeached but not recalled.

The Primary was a fourth reform of the Progressive Era, designed to give the people greater control over the selection of candidates in their party. It is a uniquely American innovation, with roots that some historians trace to early colonial New England and the era of the writing of the U.S. Constitution, but which first rose to modern prominence in Wisconsin in 1905, then the most progressive state in America.

The Purpose of these Early Reforms


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Tammany Hall, the executive committee of the Democratic Party in New York City, historically exercised political control through the typical “boss-ist” blend of charity and patronage.
loc.gov
Given the chaos and partisanship of our times, it might be useful to think about the historical purpose of primary elections for a moment. At a time when candidates were selected in back-room deals, by party bosses, without any public involvement, a time when urban political machines, like Tammany Hall in New York, selected candidates who would do their bidding once in office, reformers (progressives) decided to circumvent the smoke-filled room with an open party vetting system that brought average voters into the selection process. Two or more candidates would come forward to seek the party’s endorsement. The one who won the primary election would then stand against the candidate from the other party. The only way a candidate could win the nomination was to persuade more voters than the other guy.

In other words, primaries were invented to give people the power of the selection of both their state and national representatives.

Imperfect Beginnings


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The Dakota Territory was formed in 1861 — including what is now North Dakota and South Dakota — and took on the boundaries of the two Dakotas seven years later. The territories would eventually join the U.S. as states once they met certain requirements, such as hitting a population count of more than 60,000 and drafting a state constitution.
(University of South Dakota)
Theodore Roosevelt’s experience in 1912 is a good example of the problem and its proposed solution. Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor William Howard Taft failed to govern according to Roosevelt’s expectations. So, reluctantly (he insisted!) TR challenged Taft for the Republican presidential nomination. 1912 was the first year that primaries were a factor in the presidential election. In fact, North Dakota was the first state to hold a presidential primary. The results were bitter for Roosevelt. Wisconsin’s Robert M. LaFollette won the North Dakota primary on March 19, 1912, with 34,123 votes. TR came in second with 23,669 votes, and the incumbent, President Taft, received only a paltry and humiliating 1,876 votes. Taft appeared to be finished as a political force in American life.

Roosevelt, who remained immensely popular with the great bulk of the American people, especially away from the eastern corridors of power, won most of the dozen 1912 primaries, including in Taft’s home state of Ohio. It was clear that if the will of the Republican voters of American had been canvassed and fulfilled, TR would have stood for a third term on the Republican ticket in 1912 and he probably would have defeated Woodrow Wilson in the general election. The aggregate vote in the states that held primaries in 1912 was 1,157,397 votes for Roosevelt, 761,716 for Taft, and 351,043 for Fighting Bob LaFollette. But primaries were newfangled and comparatively rare in 1912; the old establishment political machine still exerted extraordinary power. According to historian James Chace, “Taft’s strategy was to get the nomination through patronage officeholders who would be delegates to state nominating conventions.” In this way, Taft won the nomination at the Republican National Convention in Chicago, in spite of the fact that the great majority of Republican voters preferred the Rough Rider, the cowboy, the hero of San Juan Hill, the trustbuster. Roosevelt was so offended by what he regarded as the theft of his rightful nomination that he bolted from the Republican Party and helped to launch the Progressive or Bull Moose Party, which also convened in Chicago. In the fall election, Roosevelt received 27 percent of the national vote, the largest tally of any third-party candidate for President in American history (Ross Perot, 1992, 18.9 percent), Taft 23 percent, and the winner, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, 41percent. Primaries existed in 1912, but they were not yet determinative.

The Watershed: 1968-1972


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Demonstration during 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
(Minnesota Historical Society)
Primaries did not become the preeminent method of choosing political candidates until 1972, after the disastrous and riotous Democratic National Convention of 1968, the most disruptive year in twentieth century America. The delegates to the Chicago convention wound up nominating LBJ’s Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, a quintessential establishment figure who had followed LBJ’s aggressive lead on Vietnam, rather than a popular anti-war candidate like Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. In fact, Humphrey had not run in a single primary as he maneuvered his way to the nomination with the support of such party “bosses” as Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago. In 1968 only fourteen states held presidential primaries. Today almost all states hold presidential primaries, many on what is called Super Tuesday.

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George McGovern, a Representative and a Senator from South Dakota, was an unsuccessful candidate for Democratic presidential nomination in 1968 and 1984 and an unsuccessful Democratic nominee for President of the United States in 1972.
(house.gov)
After the debacle of 1968, the McGovern–Fraser Commission was established by the Democratic Party, formally known as Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection. The commission report called for a more open nominating process, dramatically greater representative at nominating conventions by rank and file citizens, decidedly fewer delegates selected by state party committees, and greater diversity of representation (particularly of gender and race). Before these reforms, in two thirds of the states, Democratic delegates had been selected behind the scenes by party elites. A decade later, three quarters of delegates were selected by primaries. South Dakota Senator George McGovern oversaw these sweeping electoral reforms in the Democratic Party that gave the process to the people—for good or ill. The Republicans soon followed suit with somewhat more moderate reforms.

The Problem of Committed Extremists


Primaries have given the people the power to decide who runs in the general election, but in most cases a determined minority drives the process, organizes the vote and pressures the candidates’ agenda, and shows up at the polls. Primaries are no longer a representative canvas of the people of that party in that state. They are now a method of political insurgency that increases the partisan divide in America, turns incumbents away from sober governing towards perennial electioneering, and causes centrist politicians either to leave the political arena, or try to conform to the least realizable ideas of their party’s most strident voters. The primaries drive or drag the party to the right, if it’s Republicans, or the left, if it’s Democrats. What U.S. President Richard Nixon called “the silent majority” (November 3, 1969), the 65-80 percent of the electorate that is left of the FOX News Channel and right of MSNBC, is effectively disenfranchised by the current dynamics of the system. The silent majority tends to stay at home, while the severest partisans shout from the rooftops.

Mainstream or middle of the road office holders now live in fear of being “primaried” from the extreme end of their respective parties. As a result, they tend either to adopt the more extreme measures and attitudes of their party, or pretend to until they get through the primary, after which they gravitate carefully back towards their actual views to be competitive in the general election. In other words, loud and determined extremists get some of what they want by the mere threat of a primary challenge. They force the discourse towards their end of the spectrum, and then do their best to hold the successful candidate to the positions she or he espoused during the primary campaign.

This cannot be what the framers of Primaries, Initiative, Referendum, and Recall had in mind. The reformers of the Progressive Era were attempting to make the parties listen to the broad will of the average people of that party, to represent majorities rather than highly committed minorities in the party, to circumvent the bosses, party hacks, and backroom strategists in order to empower the silent majority who did not regard government as a power game, but as a means of improving the lives of the American people. They were not looking to create a mechanism by which a determined extremist wing of the party could hijack the process. Some historians of the Progressive Era legislation say that the primaries were a reform in 1912 that needs a new round of reform in the twenty-first century.

It's Not All Bad


In some ways, the primaries still fulfill their purpose. In 2016, the Republican Party establishment wanted to make Jeb Bush its presidential candidate. He was a moderate Republican from a famous family, a political dynasty, widely thought to be more talented politically than his brother G.W. Bush. Party regulars raised more than $150 million to secure him the nomination.



Then Donald Trump rode down the golden elevator at Trump Plaza in New York. The Republican “bosses” may have wanted Jeb Bush, but the Republican rank and file across the nation were at best lukewarm about Bush, while they were enraptured by the star of NBC’s The Apprentice, who proceeded to make short work of Jeb and fifteen other candidates, before vanquishing Texas Senator Ted Cruz in the later primaries and securing the nomination. Trump emerged in 2016 as the most hypnotic Republican presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt. The people spoke! The experts grumbled, and then scrambled to get in line. The tens of millions of Republicans who were fed up with establishment candidates selected a famous and wealthy outsider to run against Hillary Clinton. Finally, in their view, from an unlikely direction, a Republican candidate emerged who found a way to resonate with the anger, the bewilderment, the frustration, and the values of a large swath of the American electorate who had felt ignored or belittled by a long series of mainstream candidates. Without the primary system, Donald Trump could never have received the Republican nomination in 2016.

Possible Reforms


Those who believe the primaries still play an important democratizing role in American life suggest a number of reforms. One would be to reschedule the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary later in the campaign season to make sure the first vetting of national political candidates does not come from smallish states that are overwhelmingly white and more rural than the rest of the nation. A more daunting challenge would be to redistrict the entire congressional system to maximize the number of contestable districts and reduce as severely as demographic science can manage the number of safe seats. As the number of safe seats has risen dramatically in recent decades, the primaries have in many cases become the only arena in which the people can really affect the political outcome. Primaries would become less important if all voters in a statistically average congressional district had a realistic chance of their party’s or candidate’s success in the general election. Some reformists argue that a single, same-day national nonpartisan primary election could winnow down the number of viable candidates to a manageable number, say four, and they would move on to compete in the general election. Something like this has been shown to work well in Alaska.

The fundamental question for an enlightened people is how well our current system allows the best candidates to compete for public office. If the system is broken or needs significant reforms, two questions follow. First, what reforms would produce better results and bring down the political temperature in the United States? Second, assuming we knew what reforms to make, do the American people have the political will to make the adjustments?
You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour, and the new Governing podcast, Listening to America. Clay’s new book, The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota, is available through AmazonBarnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing cjenkinson@governing.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.
Clay S. Jenkinson is the editor-at-large of Governing. He is a humanities scholar, historian and founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center. He can be reached at cjenkinson@governing.com or on Twitter at @ClayJenkinson.
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