A Synopsis of the Evolution of the Presidential Primary

March 23, 2012

Since the Republican Primary has made it to us, I thought it would be interesting in taking a quick look at the evolution of the primary system in America. The primary process first got started in the 1890s under the leadership of Populist, William Jennings Bryan. Many Americans were dismayed over the process by which “Party Bosses” and political elites met in the infamous “smoke-filled-rooms” selecting the two people that the American people were ALLOWED to choose between for their next president. Bran in his first bid for the White House took his debate straight to the people and as a result in 1900 he took the nomination of the Democratic Party defeating Admiral George Dewey and Richard Croker. These early democratic primaries however were not what we know today, only a handful of states actually held them and candidates were not expected to compete in every race available, just those that would prove their sustainability to the party bosses who still ultimately selected the party’s nominee.

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Fast-forward to 1912. Incumbent Republican President, Howard Taft, is being challenged by American Icon and former President, Theodore Roosevelt; this would mark the first time the Republican Party would hold a primary election to select their nominee. The party would find itself bitterly divided between the two men, but ultimately Taft would go on to receive the nomination. Never a man to back down, Roosevelt secured the Nomination of a new party, the Bull Moose Party. That November Roosevelt split the vote with Taft and handed the election to the Democrats.

Jumping forward a few decades we find ourselves in the midst of the 1940 election where FDR plans on making a run for an unprecedented third term as President. The Party elite are backing a Senator from Missouri, Arthur H. Vandenberg. The man is a joke, he’s an isolationist and he even opposed the lend/lease act (which was the only thing keeping Britain afloat at that time)! The Republican base was vehemently opposed this man. At the urging of the Herald Tribune a New York Businessman named Wendell Wilkie entered the Republican Primary. Wilkie had no former political experience but what he did have was a plan and this plan would take him from Dark Horse Candidate to Presidential Nominee in just a few months (reminds me of the 2008 democratic convention). As we all know FDR wins again, but this marked a real change in the way politics would work in America.

In 1952 Senator Robert Taft was considered the favorite to win the Republican nomination. Everything started well for the Ohio Politician until some party insiders convinced Former General, Dwight D. Eisenhower to enter the New Hampshire Primary. The campaign became brutal as both candidates stayed even with the other all the way up through the start of the convention where neither entered having earned a majority of the delegates. Through a series of political buyoffs Eisenhower managed to secure the nomination and further win two terms as President (this should be a good message to those that claim a split convention is guaranteed doom for us this year).

In 1960 a young an ambitious Senator named John F. Kennedy set his sights on the Democratic Nomination. Kennedy entered the primaries in an effort to prove to the Bosses that a catholic could compete nationally. Kennedy first won Wisconsin by a narrowly defeating Hubert Humphrey but this did not convince the Democratic elite who observed that most of his support had in fact come from Catholic portions of the state. So Kennedy moved on to the predominantly protestant West Virginia primary, at this point Humphrey had spent most of his finances on Wisconsin and was unable to put up a real fight allowing Kennedy to walk away with the nomination and forcing Humphrey to withdraw from the race. Consequently, Kennedy won all ten primaries that year. Upon entering the convention, Kennedy had earned the respect of enough of the Party Bosses to allow him a win over the favored candidate, Lyndon B. Johnson, who had not even bothered competing in the primaries.

Lastly in 1976 both Parties had interesting primaries. Reagan challenged the Sitting President, Gerald Ford, and nearly was successful in defeating him making it all the way to the Convention with no clear winner. And on the Democratic side we had the ultimate winner in the race (but ultimate loser as a President). This year marked the first time that a primary system took precedence over the old Boss System. Nearly every state would hold either a primary or caucus and there were many candidates vying for the nomination. Most candidates sat out of the early primaries but one little known Governor saw opportunity in gaining name ID and momentum by competing early. Thus Jimmy Carter ran the first modern presidential election and became the first man to become a party’s nominee off of a pure primary win.


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