How presidential primaries backfired.

How presidential primaries backfired.

How presidential primaries backfired.

The history behind current events.
June 11 2007 12:01 PM

My Vote Means Nothing

How presidential primaries backfired.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Presidential primaries were created to put power in the hands of the people—to make the choice of party nominees, once the preserve of the bosses, more democratic. But instead of producing what you'd expect from democracy—greater disagreement, difference, and unpredictability—the ascent of binding primaries has turned the pre-convention months into a dreary slog. After a flurry of excitement surrounding Iowa and New Hampshire, front-runners typically amass springtime victories like a college football team running up the score in the last quarter. Even junkies get bored and turn off the TV.

Why have the primaries become a tedious march toward the inevitable, rather than an exhilarating saga of democracy in action? And why do New Hampshire and Iowa continue to exert so much influence that the balance of the primary season feels like an afterthought? The answer in two parts.


Primaries were the brainchild of early-20th-century reformers. Previously, delegates had chosen their nominees by bartering and scheming at conventions. But in the Progressive Era, good-government types mobilized to disinfect the squalid backrooms of the party bosses. Over the course of a generation, they introduced a slew of political reforms, from the use of secret ballots in the 1880s to the direct election of U.S. senators in 1913.

Primaries were supposed to further this movement. Wisconsin, which passed the first significant primary law, is a case in point. Gov. Robert La Follette had watched with fury at the 1904 Republican convention as party chieftains seated business-friendly "Old Guard" loyalists instead of progressive delegations like his own. At his urging, his state passed a primary bill that let voters choose their party's convention delegates directly.

The Wisconsin law, though a step toward popular empowerment, wasn't transformative, because it didn't actually commit these popularly chosen delegates to any particular candidate. That step was taken by Oregon voters in 1910. Soon, primary fever swept the states. In 1913, President Wilson even endorsed a national presidential primary law in his State of the Union address. By the time the 1916 presidential race rolled around, 25 of 48 states had established primaries in which voters chose their party's convention delegates, expressed a preference among the candidates (a competition known as the "beauty contest"), or combined both policies to bind delegates to the beauty-contest winner.

Just when primaries seemed like the wave of the future, they receded from view. One general reason was the shrinking appetite after World War I for reform of any sort. More concretely, primaries proved to be costly, and voters weren't turning out en masse. As a result, candidates didn't treat primaries as necessary stops on the road to the White House. In the 1910s and 1920s, most successful aspirants mapped out other routes to the nomination. In 1920, the Republicans, deadlocked at their convention, chose Warren Harding of Ohio, who hadn't entered any primaries at all. On the Democratic side, so few primaries had lured the top candidates that the number of uncommitted delegates dwarfed the number pledged to any individual. With primaries seeming irrelevant, only one state, Alabama, enacted a new primary law between 1917 and 1935. Eight states actually abandoned theirs.


After World War I, democratic hopes had been dashed; but after World War II, these hopes were reinvigorated. Primaries made a comeback in the late 1940s on the promise that they would help fulfill America's egalitarian potential.

Particular events helped. One was the surprisingly strong showing in the 1948 GOP primaries of Harold E. Stassen, the former governor of Minnesota. Though New York's Thomas Dewey, the presumed front-runner, ultimately prevailed, Stassen scored several primary upsets along the way and gave the primaries new respectability. More states established primaries, and between 1948 and 1952 turnout climbed from 4.8 million to 12.7 million. (Also influencing this trend was New Hampshire's decision in 1949 to revamp its primary law, on which I'll say more tomorrow.)

Most important, television arrived. Suddenly, a politician like Democratic Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee—who once would have had to bide his time and accrue seniority before seeking the White House—could gain instant fame through the tube, as he did in 1950 by presiding over dramatic hearings into organized crime. Kefauver parlayed his celebrity into a presidential bid, campaigning across New Hampshire in 1952 in a Daniel Boone-style coonskin cap and upsetting President Truman in the primary. Kefauver then won 12 of 15 primaries, and although he wasn't nominated—Democrats went for Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson—his populist, media-driven candidacy (along with Eisenhower's defeat of Robert Taft on the Republican side that year) confirmed primaries as a viable way to outflank party bosses. In later years, Stevenson, John F. Kennedy, and Barry Goldwater all nabbed their party's nominations with key primary victories.

Party reforms after 1968 solidified the primaries' importance. That year, Sen. Eugene McCarthy came within 4,000 votes of upsetting President Johnson in the New Hampshire Democratic contest, prompting LBJ to end his re-election bid. Robert Kennedy then jumped in the race—his primary fights against McCarthy would determine the party's nominee. RFK's assassination on June 5 was all the more devastating to his supporters because it happened the night he won the crucial California showdown. In August, at a deeply divided convention, the Democrats chose the plodding Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had won none of the preliminary contests, whose selection met with despair, and who went on to defeat in November.


The Democrats appointed a commission led by South Dakota Sen. George McGovern and Congressman Donald Fraser to reform the nomination process. The McGovern-Fraser reforms required greater transparency in how states chose their delegates. To meet these new strictures, many states found it simplest to hold binding primaries—making delegate selection a function of the popular vote. (The Republicans, responding to the same democratizing pressures, did similarly.) Before 1972, an average of 14 states held primaries each election; today almost every states holds one. Turnout also climbed.

In theory, the greater power of ordinary voters should have made for more open conventions. It's easier for party insiders to close ranks behind an anointed candidate—or to bargain their way to a consensus—than it is for tens of millions of atomized citizens to do so. But since primaries became the main method of choosing nominees, the opposite has happened: Despite occasional upsets in the early going, front-runners have mostly held on to win the nominations by racking up primary victories. Voters, sheeplike, dutifully follow the winner.

Several interrelated factors explain this phenomenon. One is what pollsters call a bandwagon effect. Because people like to hold opinions that the majority shares, they will unwittingly adopt the opinions of the majority. After Gary Hart's victory over Walter Mondale in the 1984 Democratic primary, he gained 27 points in the Gallup poll overnight.

The second is the news media. Even if people don't consciously cast their ballots for the most "electable" contender, candidates enjoy a surge of positive news coverage after winning New Hampshire or Iowa. This golden glow makes them more attractive to voters in later rounds. In 1976, Jimmy Carter trailed the pack of Democratic aspirants when a victory in the Iowa caucuses landed him on the morning news shows and in the newsmagazines. Evening news programs allotted him five times as much airtime as any of his rivals. New Hampshire media coverage is even more intense. According to a study of the 1996 Republican race by political scientist Emmett Buell, the New Hampshire primary generated more than six nightly news stories per delegate at stake, compared with an average of 0.18 stories per delegate overall. The disproportionate media coverage that New Hampshire enjoys means voters in subsequent weeks are much more likely to be influenced by the outcome in the Granite State than in states where many more delegates are up for grabs.

Third, campaign-finance reforms passed in 1974 capped individual donations at $1,000 apiece (raised to $2,000 as part of the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act). Candidates' fund-raising thus became less dependent on big donors, more reliant on mass appeal. Poor showings in New Hampshire, or at other points early in the campaign, now dry up not just a candidate's publicity but also the dollars that publicity brings.

Finally, in 1972, the Democratic National Committee banned winner-take-all primaries. (The ban was lifted but imposed again in 1992.) This made it harder for candidates (at least for Democrats) who are lagging in the race to become viable later on. With winner-take-all primaries, a trailing candidate could regain viability with a first-place finish in a big state; now, with delegates allotted in proportion to how candidates place, a front-runner can steadily grind out a victory merely by doing well enough to maintain his lead.

Not since 1968, then, have voters felt the excitement of a June primary where the nomination is at stake. On the contrary, the trend of the last 40 years has been to front-load—to move contests earlier and earlier in the campaign season. The 2008 campaign is already looking radically different from those of years past, with nearly 20 states, including California, Florida, and New York, having pushed up their primaries or caucuses to compete with Iowa and New Hampshire.

But front-loading created another irony. So far, at least, it has strengthened the hand of those first states, making the states that follow them little more than dominoes waiting to tumble into place. More on this tomorrow.