You can thank the reformers of the early 20th century for today's winding road of presidential primaries. Fed up with the way party bosses played a controlling role in determining presidential candidates in the Democratic and Republican party conventions, these political and economic reformers — part of what historians now dub the Progressive movement — were successful in getting some states to establish primary elections. The primaries permitted citizens to vote for their party's presidential nominee, with the winner's delegates going to the national convention. (Before the primary system, district and state caucuses of party bosses selected the delegates.) And although primaries were established earlier — for example, Oregon in 1910 — the first real test of them came in the presidential election of 1912.
All the candidates that year — Woodrow Wilson and James Beauchamp "Champ" Clark on the Democratic ticket; incumbent President William Howard Taft, former President Theodore Roosevelt and Wisconsin Sen. Robert M. La Follette on the Republican ticket — claimed to be Progressives except, of course, when the new primary election system worked to their disfavor. For example, Wilson owed his election as New Jersey's governor in 1910 to the Democratic Party machine, but he spouted Progressive language in running for his party's presidential nod. A former Princeton University president and political science professor, Wilson was academic and stiff. His major opponent, House Speaker Clark from Missouri, was folksy, known by his nicknames "Champ" and "Ol' Hound Dawg."
Clark won nine state primaries, Wilson five. Although Clark went into the convention with a sizable psychological lead over the relatively unknown Wilson, it was not enough to garner the two-thirds of the 1,094 delegates required. During the convention, thinking that Clark would still be the nominee, New York's Tammany Hall bosses put their support behind him. That backing notwithstanding, the new primary system seemed to be working as the Progressives intended because Clark, the leader in primary wins, also gained delegates from nonprimary states impressed with his lead.
Then William Jennings Bryan, who — as an elder and three-time unsuccessful Democratic candidate was expected to remain neutral — came out for Wilson. Wilson finally reached the required two-thirds vote after 46 ballots; in return, Wilson later made Bryan his secretary of State.
The primary system didn't work any better for the GOP in 1912. President Taft sought a second term, challenged by Roosevelt and La Follette. Twelve states had Republican primaries, and Roosevelt romped, notching up 278 delegates. Taft got only 48 delegates, followed by La Follette with 36. No matter. Taft controlled the party's national committee, which had scores of seats under its control, and he won the nomination on the first ballot. Roosevelt formed a third party, splintering the GOP vote, and Wilson won the White House.
In subsequent presidential election years, primaries proved ineffective as voices for the people. In 1920, Warren G. Harding was selected by GOP bosses in a smoke-filled hotel suite after six ballots at the convention yielded no leading candidate. Thanks to their influence, Harding was chosen on the 10th ballot.
By the 1920s, many political scientists were so dispirited by the failure of the primary system that they began criticizing the process, as in the case of Edward Conrad Smith in his 1924 "Dictionary of American Politics":
"The presidential primary has often been advocated by progressive leaders of opinion, but the system, as it has worked out in practice, contains numerous objectionable features. In the first place the 'instructions' given to delegates may or may not be followed.... But the most important of all the objections is that of the great expense incurred. A candidate for nomination must have a tremendously large campaign fund in order to make his candidacy known in all sections of the country.... At the present time the presidential primary is of little importance in determining what candidate will be nominated."
Some states, looking at high costs and low voter turnout, dropped the primary system in the 1920s and returned to having district and state caucuses of party bosses select delegates. The remaining states with primaries saw the system often honored in the breach, with some victorious candidates who either had not entered primaries or lost most of them. Democrat Hubert Humphrey was the most egregious primary sinner, entering not a single state contest in his 1968 bid.
Little wonder that after Humphrey's defeat in the general election, Democratic leaders in 1969 established a commission that effected reforms, accepted by Republicans as well in the early 1970s. These changes — inducing states to hold primaries by limiting the power of the state committees to appoint no more than 10% of the delegation — led to the current system, in which delegates elected in primaries account for a preponderant majority of total delegate votes.
In 2008, for example, Democrats held 37 primaries, Republicans 39, and these accounted for a major share of total delegate votes. And both parties now require only a majority rather than two-thirds of delegate votes for nomination, thereby reducing the likelihood of a "brokered" convention a la the Democrats in 1912.
But criticism still abounds, especially in view of the significant role that small states such as Iowa and New Hampshire might play in setting trends, and many complicated corrective proposals have been offered.
The most interesting proposal today is not only quite simple but takes us full circle in this historical story, dating to the Progressives nearly 100 years ago and President Wilson's first State of the Union address in 1913. Wilson, the loser in presidential primaries in 1912 who went on to win the general election, urged Congress to adopt legislation establishing a national primary day, in which all the states would vote on the same day.
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian and professor emeritus at American University in Washington.