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Presentation Elections

Political Primaries: How Are Candidates Nominated?

Article two, section one of the United States Constitution discusses the procedures to be followed when electing the president of the United States, but it does not provide guidance for how to nominate a presidential candidate. Currently, candidates go through a series of state primaries and caucuses where, based on the number of votes they receive from the electorate, they are assigned a certain number of delegates who will vote for them at their party's convention.

Democratic National Convention, Los Angeles, California, July, 1960

Earlier party conventions were raucous events, and delegates did not necessarily represent the electorate. Mrs. J.J. McCarthy describes her convention experience:

I can picture ... the great Democratic convention of 1894 at the old coliseum in Omaha... right now I can hear the Hallelluiahs of the assembled. Oh how I wish I had back the youth and the enthusiasm I felt that night, I jumped on a chair and ask[ed] that by a rising vote the nomination be made unanimous, how the people yelled, how the packed gallories [sic] applauded, it cheers an old man now to think about it.

Though these conventions were attended by delegates sent from their respective states, delegates were often chosen by state and party bosses with sway over the delegates' loyalties, instead of using the results of the primary elections; party bosses were accused of trading convention floor votes for power, patronage, or even cash. The excitement and corruption of party politics was not limited to the national arenas and big party players. E. R. Kaiser paints a picture of local party politics in the late 1800s:

Politics played a big part in the life of this town years ago. Campaigns were hot, and there was always a big celebration afterwards. ... Votes used to be bought -- that is before the secret ballot was adopted. Some sold 'em pretty cheap. I remember one old fellow who sold out to one party for a dollar -- then sold out to the other for the same price.

Many sought to reform conventions that uniformly ignored the will of individual voters in their selection of presidential candidates.

In the first decade of the 1900s, states began to hold primary elections to select the delegates who would attend national nominating conventions. The introduction of these primary elections mitigated the corrupt control of party and state bosses. But the widespread adoption of primary elections was not immediate and so they did not play as strong a role in determining a party's candidate as they do today.

In 1912, the first year in which a presidential candidate, two-time President Theodore Roosevelt, tried to secure his nomination through primary elections, nine states elected delegates that supported Roosevelt. Incumbent William Howard Taft won only one primary election. Despite Roosevelt's wholesale victory of the popular vote, Taft received the Republican nomination because only 42% of the delegates who attended the nominating convention had been selected through primary elections. The rest had been selected by party bosses who supported Taft and succeeded in granting him their party's nomination.

Republican National Convention, September 1-4, 2008. Republicans raise "Country First" signs as their leaders speak, St. Paul, Minnesota

Failing to win the Republican nomination, Roosevelt and his supporters formed the Progressive Party, or Bull Moose Party, with Roosevelt as its presidential candidate. Roosevelt failed to win the Presidency that year, but with the help of the Progressive party, our country's primary system began to change. Fed up with corrupt party politics, Americans demanded and won reforms that reduced the power of party bosses. The introduction of the secret ballot had led the way in 1888. By the 1920s, almost every state had loosened the grip of political bosses and placed candidate selection more firmly in the hands of citizen voters.

As primaries were universally adopted as the method for selecting delegates, they became a more consequential part of the election process. Early primaries have taken on added importance as setting precedence and influencing the elections that follow in other states. Today, state legislatures capitalize on the importance of primaries and jockey for influence by scheduling their states' primaries and caucuses as early as possible, forcing presidential candidates to cater to their states.

Unlike the heated back-room nominations of the past, normally there are few surprises at today's national party conventions. Today, in 48 states, individuals participate in primaries or caucuses to elect delegates who support their presidential candidate of choice. At national party conventions, the presidential contender with the most state delegate votes wins the party nomination. Our extensive news media ensures that state delegate vote counts (and the apparent nominees) are well known before national conventions begin. As a result, modern national conventions don't select candidates. Instead, they launch nominees and election themes that carry through the race to the White House.