Watching the presidential primary campaign unfold with the use of tawdry comments and language that sometimes seem unworthy of the greatest nation in the world, it may be useful to remember that there was an equally explosive contest featuring Theodore Roosevelt 104 years ago, when the presidential primary process began. There were those in 1912, as there are those today, who worried about the failings of a selection system built on popular democracy. Yet the presidential primary process has served America well in the past, and it almost certainly will serve us well this year too.
In 1912, Roosevelt, who had left the White House in the hands of his close friend and fellow Republican William Howard Taft in 1909, decided to challenge Taft for the party's nomination. TR was disappointed in Taft's administration; equally important, he was feeling alone and irrelevant in his 22-room home in Oyster Bay, Long Island, and he wanted to return to the center of the action.
Until that year, presidential nominees were selected at conventions with delegates who were picked by party activists, office holders and leaders in proverbial smoke-filled backrooms. Even in states where the public could participate in some fashion, there was no way for voters to tell delegates which candidate to support.
At first Roosevelt did not support presidential primaries. In December, 1911, his supporters helped prevent the Republican National Committee from calling on states to adopt them. But once it became clear that Taft could control a convention where delegates were picked under the old rules, Roosevelt championed the new concept of presidential primaries. His campaign theme was “Let the People Rule.” He advocated controversial ideas and used inflammatory language to attack Taft, exciting crowds but throwing fear into the hearts of the leaders and business interests who still dominated the Republican Party.
The reform-minded Nation magazine said that Roosevelt's “violence of language, recklessness of assertion, and apparent inability to reason coherently make of him a spectacle disturbing to his friends and mortifying to the country.”
Many doubted the value of the new system. The New York Times called it “Party Suicide by Primary” and said it was “a first rate device for splitting a party wide open and inviting defeat on Election Day.” The old system may have been open to objection, it argued, “but for any electorate save one confined within the walls of an insane asylum, its advantages over this plan are obvious.”
Nevertheless, the primaries energized the public. TR won nine of the 13 newly created state contests and 70% of the popularly elected delegates. It wasn't enough to overcome the ability of the Republican Party leaders to manipulate the levers of power. Some recognized that Taft could not be reelected president, but they detested Roosevelt, and winning the White House mattered less to them than maintaining control of the party machinery
In a bitter convention, the Republicans nominated Taft who proceeded to come in third in the general election, trailing both Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic candidate, and TR who ran as the standard bearer of the Bull Moose Party, which he had created after being denied the Republican nomination.
For the next 56 years, both parties selected nominees with a mixed system: a minority of states held primaries that allowed voters to tell delegates which candidate to support, but party leaders held enough power in most states, allowing them to ignore or overrule the primary results. If that mixed system were still in place today, Republican leaders would have the power to reject the results of the primaries, as they did with TR in 1912. They could select a candidate they deem most likely to win, to line up with their values, to keep them in power, and to be polite and compliant, unlike, say, Donald Trump.
But another wave of reforms changed the selection process in both parties after 1968, largely as a result of the backlash generated by the Democratic Party's decision to nominate Hubert Humphrey, who had not won a single primary. Some “super-delegates” are still selected by party leaders, providing a possible leavening force in a close contest, but most delegates today are chosen in primaries or caucuses where voters can express a preference for the presidential nominee. Under the current rules, it would be impossible to deny the nomination to someone like TR who had won the overwhelming support of the voters.
Critics have identified countless problems with the current process including campaign finance laws that give inordinate influence to big donors; limits on voter registration and participation; and the power granted to Iowa and New Hampshire as the first states to cast votes. The rules, which differ from party to party, election to election and state to state, are dizzyingly confusing. Moreover, in a country where roughly 40% of the electorate is not affiliated with either party, does it really make sense for some states to have “closed primaries” where only party members can vote?
Still primaries are better than the alternative. Although the previous system produced some great leaders — including Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt — the nation has been well served by popular democracy.
In 1960, primary voters defied the predictions of many of the Democratic Party's leaders by proving that Protestants would vote for a Catholic candidate, John F. Kennedy, for president; in 1980, primaries enabled Ronald Reagan to prove that he was vigorous enough to serve in office even though he would be elected on the eve of his 70th birthday; and in 2008, presidential primaries proved that the nation was ready to elect the first black president of the United States.
As embarrassing as the primary campaign spectacle is, and as imperfect as the process remains, TR was right in concluding that it is better to “Let the people rule.”
Geoffrey Cowan is a USC professor and the director of the Annenberg School's Center on Communication Leadership & Policy. As a student activist, he organized the commission that led the Democratic Party to increase the number of primaries after the 1968 election. His latest book is “Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary.”