Donald Trump is a cartoon character, but it is sometimes hard to remember that with all the Animaniacs-esque craziness that goes on with the United States’ primaries that we didn’t always nominate our leaders this way. The modern primary system did not fully form until 1972, which means that Bugs Bunny is older than our current primary election cycle. In fact, our modern election system only beats out being older than Disco by roughly two years. That is not to say that primaries and the National Convention system did not exist before Porky’s speech impediment, -they did- but like with most things in history the story of our nomination system is neither straightforward nor any less looney than a cross-dressing rabbit.
A Party to History
As with most things in American history we can start by laying the blame on George Washington, mostly because he won election to the highest office faster than Speedy Gonzalez running toward -what we can only assume is- some sort of highly racist taco stand. It was only after Washington selfishly refused to be our dictator in chief by turning down his third term that our election process became a big game of “Duck Season/Rabbit Season.” John Adams and Thomas Jefferson -history’s greatest frenemies- were next up for the position and that was when things got interesting.
That election basically kicked off the two-party system that we all know and love today. Jefferson was a Democratic-Republican, and Adams was a Federalist. Their respective parties nominated them through a Congressional Caucus, which basically meant everyone in Congress picked who they liked best to go up for election. It is kind of like how American high schools today pick their prom king and queen. Jefferson and Adams were basically selected by their respective parties because they were Jefferson and Adams. -Being a Founding Father goes a long way on a resume- The election was won by Adams with Jefferson as runner-up, which back in those days meant he got to be the Vice-President. It is also worth mentioning that the campaign got fairly heated with the Federalists at one point trying to link Jefferson with the violence of the French Revolution. So, if you think that the hyperbole and outright lies of today’s elections are a modern addition to our electoral process you can happily dissuade yourself of that notion.
Presidential Primaries were conducted in Congress until 1832. After that increasing social pressure created the beginnings of the National Convention system that we have today. More and more the common people wanted a hand in picking their party’s candidate for President. Don’t be fooled though, because the National Convention system was neither fair nor binding. Holding nominations at a National Convention gave tremendous power to state party bosses. Basically each state controlled their primary electors and if those electors did not vote the way the party boss wanted them to, they could lose their job. Thus, all the convention system did was move the power of nomination from Congress to a select few powerful state-level figures. That basically meant nominations for party candidates were literally made in cartoonishly smoke-filled backrooms.
Roosevelt Gets Bully
This was the way the system would probably work today if it didn’t eventually run directly opposite to one of America’s biggest, brashest, and widest-grinningest Presidents to ever shoot down a Kodiak bear from the Oval Office’s windows, Theodore “Iron Gut” Roosevelt. In 1912 Old Teddy decided to launch a comeback against his successor William Howard Taft. Previously in 1901, Florida -because of course- was one of the first states to pass a law that called for a Presidential nomination preference. Florida and the states that followed basically said that whatever candidate that the majority of state level members of political parties voted for were the candidates that those states’ delegates had to elect as the nominee at the National Convention. Unfortunately, by 1912 most states had not yet started holding primaries and though Roosevelt won more primaries and delegates than Taft the nomination still went to the incumbent President. However this did highlight the importance of presidential primary laws.
In fact Woodrow Wilson -who beat Taft- called for a national primary law in 1913. Unfortunately, much like a Wile E. Coyote plan, this looked better on paper than in practice. Despite the fact that most states eventually adopted primary election laws on their books, not many states actually held primaries, mostly due to the cost associated with holding them. Also, many laws were barely binding and state-level and national-level political bosses still continued to ignore results and nominate who they wished regardless of primary election votes. It was common for many “serious” candidates to only enter into just one or two primaries in the country to “gauge” their popularity, but not because it helped them get nominated. In fact, there was even an odd loophole where state-level political figures like Governors could enter their own state’s primary and get elected as that state’s nominee, just so they could go to the National Convention and become one of the power players that got to decide who the party’s next nomination actually went to.
In 1952 Democratic Senator Estes Kefauver won 64% of the votes cast in the -then- 16 states that held primaries and still lost the Democratic nomination to Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson, on the other hand, won less than 2%of all primary votes. In all fairness though, whoever won the nomination was destined to be torn to shreds in the Tasmanian Devil-like whirlwind that was the “I Like Ike” tornado. As a side note, that was also the first presidential election to start using TV advertisements, though they were a little different from the ones we know today.
The System Get Humphrey-ed
Everything came to a head at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. To say that the convention turned into a war-zone may be a bit over an overstatement, but only slightly, and just because making such a statement would mean that you would have to draw a direct comparison with the actual war-zone that was taking place on the other side of the world in Vietnam. Basically, tensions were running high. Chicago at the time was probably not the best place to hold the convention. The weather was sweltering, the cab driver union was on strike, the entire city was on edge, and the front entrances had to be bullet-proofed for fear of violence. Police, secret service, and the National Guard were all on standby and the convention center was ringed with barbed wire fencing. It di not help that Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had both been assassinated within the past 4 months, and more than 100 cities were were suffering from race-related and anti-war rioting.
It was in this atmosphere that Hubert H. Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson’s Vice-President, beat out Senator Eugene McGovern for the nomination. The problem with this nomination was two-fold. Humphrey had chosen to sit out the primaries and thus had received almost no primary votes, and secondly he was a proponent of LBJ’s Vietnam War agenda. He was literally the pro-war candidate. McGovern, on the other hand, was a strong populace candidate that did well in the primaries and was an actively anti-war candidate. When Humphrey won it seemed like a betrayal of the democratic process, and the trust of the people.
Meanwhile, the convention center was surrounded by protesters, everyone from hippies to civil rights activists to middle-income Americans. They were all looking for change in a world that must have felt like it was falling apart around them. 10,000 demonstrators were met by 23,000 police and National Guardsmen. Security was on such high alert that at one point Dan Rather got roughed up by police while trying to interview a Georgia Senator. Violence was inevitable, and on August 28 hundreds were seriously injured in a massive riot; and not just protesters and police, but news reporters, political volunteers, legislative aides, and countless bystanders who got caught up in the mayhem. After the convention there was a massive outcry for a change to the primary electoral system.
Here He Comes, Mr. America
Starting in the 1972 election cycle the states and both parties enacted the reforms of McGovern-Fraser, a commission on primary election reform. The rules made primaries easier to participate in and did away with rules like “winner-takes-all” delegates. The change essentially made primary elections the established way to pick nominees for President, and it is the system we still use today. Unfortunately, it has also led to the two-year long beauty pageant that are the modern primary elections.
The way the current system functions means that candidates have to announce their intentions of running years in advance and start securing delegates in places like Iowa and New Hampshire. In that past, candidates had the luxury of waiting to announce their candidacy, even up to less than a year prior to the actual Presidential Election. In fact in the days of Lincoln it was considered immodest to campaign for a nomination at all, or even the Presidency. William McKinley literally stayed home during his Presidential race, and gave speeches from his front porch. The new system also gives greater weight to certain states over others, which is why you constantly have states trying to move their primary elections ahead of others to gain greater attention from candidates.
Regardless of whether you agree with the old system or the new you have to admit that our nominating process has never been perfect. In fact, looking back it has always seemed more like the plot of a Warner Bros. cartoon than any actual serious political discourse, but it is the best we have so far. The fun thing about the primary election cycle is that it is not in the Constitution. Those original framers never envisioned this, and thus it keeps changing to match the times. So in fifty years there will be no telling what sort of new provisions may come about. Who knows maybe one day we’ll be seeing the Presidential Physical Challenge.
Th-th-th-that’s all folks…