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Primaries, parties, and the public

Primaries, parties, and the public

Update: 2020-02-03
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The 2020 primary season officially begins today with the Iowa caucuses, followed by the New Hampshire primary on February 11 and Nevada and South Carolina later this month.


It’s easy to forget that the primaries have not looked like they do now. In fact, it was not until 1968 that things really began to morph into the system of state-by-state contests that we know today. Before that, nominees were largely chosen by party leaders in preverbal smoke-filled back rooms.


While the parties once ruled the primary process, they seem to have lost some of that control, particularly in recent years. Donald Trump, a candidate the Republican Party opposed for much of his candidacy, received the nomination in 2016. Bernie Sanders one of the top candidates in this year’s Democratic candidate field, even though he is officially an independent. What does this change mean for democracy? We explore that question this week.


David Karol is an associate professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. He is an expert on primaries and the role that the political parties play in them and join us this week to help make sense of how we got here and where things might go moving forward.


Additional Information


David’s website


David’s book, The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform


Related Episodes


The case for open primaries


Your guide to ranked-choice voting


How Democracies Die author Daniel Ziblatt on the “grinding work” of democracy


Episode Credits


This episode was engineered by Democracy Works host Jenna Spinelle, edited by WPSU’s Chris Kugler, and reviewed by WPSU News Director Emily Reddy. Additional support from Democracy Works interns Nicole Gresen and Stephanie Krane.


Interview Highlights


[7:30 ] What did the primary process used to look like?


The first candidates were chosen by an informal congressional caucus, they had no legal authority, just more like a kind of a parliamentary arrangement. The members of Congress from a party selected the candidate and by the middle of the 19th century that conventions that we know today existed, but the delegates to those conventions were chosen at meetings that were not necessarily so well publicized and the participation while incorporating many more people than the congressional caucus did, it was a relatively small number of people who were involved. It wasn’t very transparent.


By the early 20th century in the Progressive Era, primaries were established. Some candidates entered primaries selectively when they need to show strengths. A really strong candidate could hope to be drafted at a convention, which was kind of a fiction because in fact, they were running for the nomination, but the stronger they were the less visible they had to be in their efforts. That system existed more or less until the end of the 1960s.


[13:17 ] What happened in 1968?


People had for several years seen primaries as part of the process, if not dominant. But in 1968, what happened is President Johnson was being challenged by Eugene McCarthy, the general candidate. Johnson withdraws and Hubert Humphrey, the Vice President, then enters the race and doesn’t run in any primaries because the filing deadlines have passed. At the Democratic Convention, Humphrey had the majority of the delegates. But there were these anti-Vietnam War protestors who as many people know were violently suppressed by the Chicago police. There were big protests at the convention and it was very messy on live television. And to reunify the party, hopefully, Humphrey agreed to establish a commission that after the election would try to reform the process and make it more open and participatory.


[19:05 ] How did the Republican Party come on board with the changes to the process?


There wasn’t a negotiation or a formal agreement at the national level between the parties, but the same trends to decline the favorite sons.  The favorite son tradition was already in decline, and that was true in both parties. As I said, Barry Goldwater had run in primaries in ’64, but what happened is, as I said, many states in 1972 and more in 1976 created primaries and that just carried both parties along and it had important implications for the Republicans as well.


[24:00 ] What role do parties play in primaries today?


What’s happened is I think, because to a large extent because of the internet and social media, cable news, other changes in media, obscure candidates can become well known more easily than in the past and can raise significant funds from small donors much more easily than in the past. This open process that party elites had seemingly been able to steer somewhat effectively in the ’80s and the ’90s and the early aughts has become messier. Some of the recent nominees have still been of the story that they don’t hide support from traditional party elites. Hillary Clinton, of course, the most prominent example. I’d also say Mitt Romney, in 2012.


I would say parties have an important role in democracy. And there’s a school of thought that democracy is really people having a choice between candidates and those candidates should be screened by political parties and should represent them. And that the current ethos in American politics though is very populist, very skeptical of elites, any idea that people are, that somebody making a decision for them is a hotly contested.

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Primaries, parties, and the public

Primaries, parties, and the public

Penn State McCourtney Institute for Democracy/The Democracy Group