Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Does our primary system work?

March 9, 2011 by Robin Morris


With the presidential primary elections and caucuses less than a year away, states are jockeying for position on the presidential nomination calendar. To understand why the primary and caucus calendar is what it is, it helps to know how we got our primary and caucus system in the first place.

By Flickr user Jeremiah RoAt the National Constitution Center, we like to refer to the Constitution when presented with a confusing question about our political system. Yet, our Constitution says nothing about how we nominate presidential candidates. Until it was amended in 1804, it didn't even accommodate the existence of political parties. (The Framers struggled mightily at the Constitutional Convention to  devise a system for electing the president. The one they created in 1787 allowed for the election of a president and vice president from opposing parties. The trouble with that quickly became apparent, which led to adoption of the 12th Amendment.)

Federalists (the party of John Adams) and Republicans (the party of Thomss Jefferson) were the nation's first political parties, having formed in the 1790s. By the 1820s Democrats were squaring off against Whigs, and Democrat Andrew Jackson was railing against the power of a handful of Congressmen and their grip on picking their party’s presidential candidates.

Political parties and their insiders continued to gain power through the nineteenth century. In 1912 power began to slowly shift away from smoke-filled rooms; the first primaries were held in only a handful of states. Not until the latter half of the century, however, did primaries take hold.

It all came to a head when Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1968

Into the 1960s, the nominating conventions were very powerful. It all came to a head when Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1968 without participating in the primaries and caucuses. A riotous protest in the streets of Chicago forced the parties to change the process again. Reforms during the 1968 and 1972 Democratic national conventions encouraged the proliferation of primaries. Starting in 1972, the idea that the popular vote would largely decide the nominee gained strength.

So that’s the history of primaries in a nutshell. Does the system work? During a visit to the Center in 2008, Newt Gingrich said “I think the primary system, broadly speaking, works. It allows candidates to emerge. It allows the voters over time to measure and judge people I think it is very important that it be a multi-month process."

Gingrich continued: "I think it would be very dangerous to have too few primaries and have them compressed too close together. The current process both allows unusual candidates without great resources to emerge in Iowa and New Hampshire and at the same time it gives enough time to test everyone extensively. If you are going to be looking for a president of the United States, the most powerful governmental office in the world, it is very important that we test them before they get to be president.”

For more depth on the topic, listen to "What's Your Primary Concern?"

By Flickr user Jeremiah Ro


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