How Our Parties Nominate Their Candidates

John Aldrich traces the history of our current system of presidential nomination

convention, national

Delegates gather at the 2008 Republican National Convention.

Perhaps the most fundamental action political parties take is to choose their nominees for political office.  These nominations are, of course, often hotly contested, and the way the parties choose their nominees is almost as often hotly contested. 

In fact, contesting the rules of nomination have been a fact of life for American political parties virtually since the Founding. The Democratic-Republican Party (the early form of today’s Democratic Party) and the Federalist Party, led by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, respectively, selected their presidential contenders in a gathering of (mostly) elected party leaders, such as Members of Congress, called the “Congressional Caucus.”  This method did represent the party across the nation, at least in terms of areas in which its candidates could win election to Congress. One variant or another of this elite control of selection is true in most democracies around the world today. 

By the 1820s, however, the Federalist Party was all but out of business, and so whoever controlled the nominations of the Democratic-Republican Party effectively chose who would be president.  In the 1820s, state legislative caucuses began to nominate candidates for president, too, a sign that a new procedure was needed.

In 1831, a third party, the Anti-Mason Party, held the first-ever national party convention, drawing delegates from the full range of the nation.  A revived version of the old Democratic-Republican Party, the Democratic Party (the oldest continuing political party in the world), followed suit later that year, and the idea of a national convention for nominating candidates for national elective office became the American norm. The design is still used, in virtually identical form, today. 

The idea was that parties in every part of the nation would send delegates to represent the political party of that state, for every state in the nation.  The national party left it up to each state as to how to select its delegates. This practice became controversial when the political parties became dominated by the bosses of state and local machines.  Many times, the national convention delegates were able to select nominees easily, but in too many cases they were unable to easily resolve their differences.  When that happened, especially during the height of machine politics, the bosses would meet in a proverbial smoke-filled room to work out who the nominee would be, and they would then go and instruct their delegates on how to vote.

[The Palmer House Hotel in Chicago still has a room that was the original “smoke-filled room.”]

Reformers, particularly the progressives, sought to wrest power from the bosses and spread it more broadly, so that the actions of the parties would reflect more closely the wishes of the party members.  One of these reforms was to create primary elections.  Because reformers were trying to reduce the power of machines where it was strongest - in the states and local areas – these elections were not particularly focused on the presidential nomination, although it was included on the agenda.  The first one actually held was in Florida in 1900.

Presidential primaries allowed the party in the electorate to vote on who would be the state party’s delegates to go to the national convention.  It was therefore an indirect way to have much influence on who would become the presidential nominee, certainly so in comparison to a direct vote in the public over who the Republicans [or the Democrats] were going to nominate for governor or other offices.  As a result relatively few states held presidential primaries, and those that did found they were not very consequential.  Only long-shot, outsider candidates would “go over the heads of the party to the people,” as the saying went, and every one of these candidates lost the nomination.

This changed in 1960.  Then Sen. John F. Kennedy (D, MA) needed to find a way to convince the remaining party bosses that voters would back him -- a young, rich, jet-setting Catholic.  The latter was what mattered.  Only once before had the Democrats (or any other party) nominated a Catholic, Al Smith of New York, and he lost in a landslide, which the bosses (many of them Catholics themselves) took to mean that the public was not ready to vote for a Catholic.  Kennedy concluded that the way to change their minds was to demonstrate that voters (especially Democrats who were Protestants) actually would vote for him.  So he campaigned in and won primary elections that year -- especially important were the primary wins in Wisconsin and West Virginia. 

From then on, campaigning for public support during the primaries became an important part of all presidential campaigns -- a way to show potential for winning over the electorate, but not a particularly important way to win delegates. 

As in so many ways, 1968 was a pivotal year in this regard.  Lyndon Johnson had won election to the presidency in 1964 in a landslide.  This enabled him to pass the Voting Rights Act, much of the legislation that came to known as the Great Society, and to greatly increase the military effort in Vietnam.  The latter became especially controversial within the Democratic Party.  In late 1967, Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D, MN) agreed to run as an anti-war candidate.  Johnson seemed invincible, but McCarthy did surprisingly well in a losing effort in the New Hampshire primary.  His public support increased and he looked like an increasingly strong challenger.  Johnson stunned the nation by refusing to run for re-election.  Eventually his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, entered in his place, but chose to run in zero primaries, relying on insider support to win the nomination.  Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D, NY) also entered the race, competing strongly in primaries.  On the evening of his greatest victory, which all but vanquished McCarthy and made Kennedy the major anti-war candidate, Kennedy was assassinated. 

Humphrey would go on to win the nomination (again, without ever seeking a single popular vote), but when the convention descended into chaos inside the convention hall, and the Chicago police began a “police riot” against anti-war demonstrators outside the hall, Humphrey concluded that something needed to be done.  No one should be able to win nomination again as he just had. 

To do so, he appointed a committee, known popularly as the McGovern-Fraser Committee (after its two chairs), to propose reforms to the delegate selection system and report them to the 1972 Democratic National Convention.  These were largely adopted as written, and their reforms were one of the crucial changes that created the current method we use for nominating presidents.  No other nation uses such a system, one in which the campaign in and to the public is so central.

 Political scientist John Aldrich, who specializes in American politics, is the author or several books, including “Why Parties” and “Before the Convention.”

-- John Aldrich