Though it seems as if the 2016 Presidential election campaign has been going on for about a year already, we are now officially into the season of the Presidential primaries, the election preseason if you will. Many of us are aware that the Primaries are the process by which the nominees for the two major political parties are finally chosen from among the pigpen of candidates and then officially nominated at each party’s convention in July – it’s ok if you didn’t know that, there’s no judgment here. But nearly just as many of us don’t know how the process works or why we do it. Is it just a popularity contest? Are the primary results actually binding or are they simply recommendations to whomever picks the nominee at the convention? And who are those whomevers that choose the party nominee? To some this may seem like a series of extra, unnecessary steps to the election process – why do we do all this? Well, dear readers, put on your political party hats (haha, that’s punny) as we delve into our Nation’s primary process.
Presidential Primaries: From Whence Did They Come?
Let’s start with this fact: we didn’t always have a primary process. The Constitution, in fact, says nothing about political parties and it wasn’t until the Progressive Era (1890’s-early 1900’s) that the process took hold. In 1831 the Anti-Masonic Party held the first national convention to select a candidate, in 1899 Minnesota held the first statewide primary, in 1910 Oregon became the first to make a binding (or “preferential”) primary the official process for nomination, and by 1916 26 states were using some sort of primary process for their selections. The biggest reason for adopting a primary system was and is to combat the influence of party bigwigs on the election process, opening up the nomination process to allow the general electorate a role in choosing the candidates. Critics of the primary process make the case that a generally un(der)informed American electorate may not be best group for proposing candidates and that it is a task better suited to the parties themselves. Is there such thing as “too much democracy”? Critics would argue so and some states still employ caucuses, which are closed to the public and are run by the political parties themselves, as opposed to primaries which are managed by state and local governments. The following 13 states are using caucuses for 2016: Iowa, Nevada, Minnesota, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Idaho, Utah, Kansas, Wyoming, Alaska, Washington, and North Dakota. Kentucky is using a caucus for the Republican Party and a primary for the Democrats.
For both primaries and caucuses the process has evolved to the results now having a binding effect on the nomination. On the Democratic side, proportionality is required by all states while the Republicans still have some capacity for winner-take-all contests, governed by the “proportionality window” and other percentage thresholds. The exception to this is what are called “super-delegates”, mostly current and past elected officials in each state whom the party allows to vote however they choose at the national convention.
Presidential Primaries: The 1968 Democratic National Convention
Though changes to the process had been ongoing through the first half of the 20th century, the tumultuous 1968 DNC changed it forever. That year the Democratic Party, itself the champion of the people’s voice, nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had not entered a single primary, over the anti-Vietnam War candidate Eugene McCarthy. This divide in the party led to the formation of the McGovern-Fraser Commission, ushering in changes to the process at the state level, specifically with regard to mandatory binding and proportionality, which then affected both parties when voted into law.
Amidst the context of the modern rules, this historic example is especially interesting as the GOP faces the difficult possibility of a having to nominate a wildly popular Donald Trump, despite not wanting him as the face of their party. Bound by the results of the primaries, there is little the party can do to alter the nomination’s course, leading us back to the larger socio-political question of whether the party or the public is better suited to be deciding their nominee.