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.


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