Strangely, presidential primaries are a recent addition to America’s electoral system.
In fact, they held the first presidential primary in North Dakota in 1912. Moreover, primaries did not become the main means of selecting the presidential nominees until the 1970s.
Until the 1950s, party elites picked the presidential nominees at the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Popular anger at nominees nobody voted forced the parties to adopt the primary system in the 1970s.
What are Presidential Primaries?
The U.S. Presidential primaries are state elections in which members of a party select its presidential nominee.
In most states, primaries are regular elections held at polling places or by mail. However, some states; including Iowa and Nevada, use the archaic caucus system. In the caucus local meet-ups of voters select delegates who elect a presidential nominee.
Other countries use primary elections to pick their leaders. For example, France holds a national presidential primary a few months before its regular elections.
France holds just one primary, while the United States holds a series of them over several months. However, 15 states will participate in the Super Tuesday primaries on 3 March 2020 and elect one third of the delegates needed to win the presidential nomination.
Interestingly, voters do not elect the presidential nominee directly in American primaries. Instead, the voters elect the delegates who will choose the nominee at the National Party conventions in the summer. However, in the modern world, the conventions usually pick the voters recommendations.
Important Presidential Primaries in History
America adopted the primary system after a series of election controversies in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of those controversies centered on primaries.
Primaries that shaped American Presidential History include:
New Hampshire 1952
The 1952 New Hampshire primary introduced Americans to the primary. It was also the first time that a primary drove a major national figure out of a presidential race.
To explain, the eccentric U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver (D-Tennessee) challenged President Harry S. Truman (D-Missouri) by entering the first primary in New Hampshire. Truman had not decided whether to seek a second elected term.
On 11 March 1952, Kefauver humiliated Truman by winning 36% of New Hampshire’s vote. In contrast, the president only won 18% of the vote. A little over a month later Truman pulled his hat out of the Presidential ring.
Meanwhile, General Dwight D. Eisenhower (R-Kansas) emerged as a credible candidate by receiving 50.25% of the New Hampshire Republican primary vote even though he did not campaign. Strangely, Ike had not wanted to run, but supporters put his name on the ballot. In March 1952, Eisenhower was in Europe commanding NATO’s forces.
In addition, the 1952 New Hampshire primary ended the political career of another legendary American general. Douglas MacArthur ended his political career after receiving just 3.48% of the Republican vote in New Hampshire.
The 1952 New Hampshire primary was the first time a primary changed the outcome of a presidential race. It launched one president’s political career; Eisenhower, and ended that of another, Truman.
After 1952 reporters began covering the New Hampshire primaries and watching other primaries. Additionally, political activists realized they could use the primary system to change the outcome of presidential elections for the first time.
The 1964 Republican Presidential Primary
The 1964 Republican Presidential Primary was the first time that a grassroots movement used primaries to take over a party.
Conservative Republicans were angry because the party establishment kept blocking their candidates path to the nomination. In 1964, conservatives outmaneuvered the establishment by waging a series of aggressive primary campaigns for their hero U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Arizona).
Goldwater won the primary despite stiff opposition from the establishment and the well-heeled moderate Governor Nelson Rockefeller (R-New York). In 1964, establishment Republicans led by former New York Governor Thomas Dewey (R-New York) did everything in their power to stop Goldwater.
The 1964 Republican Primary was important because it was the first time an ideologically motivated movement took over a party. It also proved well-organized grassroots activists overcome the party establishment.
However, Goldwater lost the general election to President Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) in a landslide. Goldwater won only six states and 52 electoral votes. The 1964 Republican primary is important because it serves as the template for other primary elections since.
The 1968 Democratic Primary
In 1968, the Vietnam War fatally divided the Democratic Party. Antiwar Democrats were out to stop President Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) or LBJ at all costs.
Strangely, nobody challenged Johnson until the obscure U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-Minnesota) threw his hat into the ring. On 12 March 1968 McCarthy shocked the nation by receiving 42% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary. Johnson won, but McCarthy emerged as a credible candidate.
On March 31, 1968, a depressed Lyndon Johnson bowed out of the race. Once again, a primary election brought down a popular sitting president. On 2 April 1968, McCarthy won the Wisconsin primary by 56% and established himself as the front runner.
Ironically, McCarthy was not the Democratic nominee in 1968. Instead, the Democratic establishment nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey instead of McCarthy. The party leaders used the tragic death of McCarthy’s rival; U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-New York) to make Humphrey the nominee. Sirhan Sirhan had assassinated Kennedy on the night he won the California Democratic primary.
That led to riots and violence at the Democratic convention in Chicago. The violence broke out after antiwar activists angry at Humphrey’s nomination began brawling with police on nationwide TV.
Humphrey lost the General Election to Richard M. Nixon (R-California). The 1968 debacle prompted Democrats to reform their nomination process. Under the new process, states had to elect the delegates who would elect the nominee at the Convention.
Most states used primaries to elect the delegates which created our modern primary system. Republicans followed suit because they participated in the same primaries.
Ironically, U.S. Senator George McGovern (D-South Dakota) charied the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection which created the primary reforms. McGovern used the system the Commission created to win the Democratic primary in 1972. McGovern’s victory enabled the far left to dominate the national Democratic Party.
1968 was important because it was the year the American people rejected the party nomination process and the smoke filled. Before 1968, party leaders picked the candidates. After 1968, grassroots party members picked the candidates.
The 1976 Iowa Caucus
We pay attention to the Iowa Caucuses today because of 1976. To explain, 1976 was the year Iowa picked the president.
In January 1976, the pundits believed well-known figures such as Governor Jerry Brown (D-California) and Governor George Wallace (D-Alabama) were the probable leaders in the Democratic primary. None of them paid attention to an unknown governor named Jimmy Carter (D-Georgia).
Carter changed politics by taking Iowa seriously. Carter realized that he could attract little media attention in New Hampshire. To explain, in 1976 most people believed the presidential race began in New Hampshire.
Carter’s campaign did an end run around New Hampshire by concentrating on Iowa. That attracted media attention, and on 19 January 1976 Carter won the Iowa Caucus by a two-to-one margin. Later in the year, Carter won both the Democratic primaries and the general election.
In 1976, Carter won because he had a nationwide campaign and started campaigning over a year earlier than normal. Thus, Carter created modern presidential campaigns in 1976.
Super Tuesday 1992
Though Super Tuesday dates to 1984, it became important in 1992.
1992 was the first time a candidate who lost in both the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire Primary won both the nomination and the general election. To explain, Governor Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas) won just 2.8% of Iowa Caucus vote and came in second in New Hampshire.
Clinton, however, swept the Southern States and went onto win 37 primaries. In November Clinton defeated President George H. W. Bush (R-Texas), the victor in the First Gulf War, to win the Presidency.
Before 1992, the primaries were all about Iowa and New Hampshire. After 1992, the other states mattered in the presidential primaries.
The Last Caucus Iowa 2020
We could be witnessing primary history in Iowa with the demise of the Caucus system.
The last Iowa Democratic Caucus was a complete disaster and a national embarrassment. For example, both The New York Times and the Associated Press refused to accept the 2020 Iowa Caucus results, NPR notes.
Iowa is controversial because U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) received the most votes in the 20202 Caucus (45,842) but lost the final vote. Instead, the Democratic Party rewarded the delegates to Pete Buttigieg (D-Indiana) who received 43,274 votes or 5,000 less than Sanders.
Popular anger at the Iowa Caucus is growing because the Democratic Party used a controversial app developed by a company they call Shadow, Inc. The Intercept’s Lee Fang alleges Shadow Inc. Is connected to Democratic Party insiders.
The Iowa Democratic Party claimed the app could make the Caucus process faster and more efficient. Instead, the app did not work delaying the count and angering voters.
Thus, a defective app could kill off Caucuses, a historic electoral institution that put Jimmy Carter in the White. To explain, a Caucus is a public meeting where a party elects presidential delegates by counting people in a crowd.
Several states, including Nevada, still use Caucuses to pick presidential nominees. However, popular demands to kill the Iowa Caucus are growing because of the 2020 debacle.
In the final analysis, the primaries are often the most important and revealing aspect of America’s presidential elections. Unfortunately, nobody; including the candidates, understands America’s presidential primary process.