Politics and Governance

The U.S. Presidential Primary and the Convention

Photo: U.S. News/AP/Reuters/Gary Cameron/Joe Skipper/Jose Luis Magana

The American political primary is in full swing, but this is an unusual year. Sen. Marco Rubio is planning for a brokered convention. The media is counting super delegates. Political scientists seem to be losing faith in their carefully built models. What is going on?

The answer to that question reveals how the nomination process has evolved both through gradual and sudden policy changes. It is a study in how politics seeks to shape process to answer a basic question: “how should the American people choose the leaders of their major political parties, and thus the future president of the United States?”

In the modern primary system both political parties run massive democratic contests through all fifty states (plus territories and the District of Columbia) in order to select their nominee. The parameters for these contests are set by a mixture of local, state and federal law and the rules of the national and state party. The result is a heterodox system which unlike the general presidential election, varies widely state to state in how it functions.

Central to the process are delegates. When voters show up to their local primary, caucus or convention, they don’t vote for their preferred candidate. Instead, like in the Electoral College, they vote for a slate of delegates pledged to their preferred candidate. These delegates then travel to the national nominating convention and vote for their candidate. The candidates are formally nominated for president by a vote at the national convention of the delegates.

A brokered convention occurs when no candidate receives enough delegates to win the nomination. Winning the nomination requires at least a majority of delegates, sometimes more. When no candidate wins, there is a negotiation among delegates and multiple convention votes until there is a clear winner for the nomination.

There has never been a brokered convention under the modern political primary system. The last convention to go past one ballot was the 1952 Democratic convention, sixteen years before what is generally seen as the beginning of the modern primary system.

Under the current rules, the allocation of delegates is done differently in each state and in each party. However, the contests are all (at least theoretically) democratic, meaning they are open to mass participation by either rank-and-file party members or the general public. Prior to the 1968 Democratic Primary, the system was far more closed off.

Before 1968, conventions were meetings between party leaders who came from across the country. They met to negotiate the nominations and the party platform. Therefore, conventions served as decision making bodies. It was a legendary time full of party bosses and smoke-filled rooms. A brokered convention was literally a convention that ended when a deal was brokered among these bosses and other political stakeholders.

Progressive reformers objected to this “boss rule,” and worked hard to bring the public into the decision of who would be the party nominees. Notably, Theodore Roosevelt fought hard for a primary based system during his campaign for the 1912 Republican nomination. He suspected that the party bosses and the corporate interests aligned with them would deny him the nomination despite his public support. The party bosses proved him right when they spurned him to re-nominate the staid Taft.

This nomination process was undemocratic; average voters had little say in choosing the nominees. Whatever democracy was contained in the nomination process was completely removed by a brokered convention. There, power shifted entirely to party leaders who would sometimes ‘draft’ candidates who hadn’t even been campaigning before the convention.  

Reformers in different states gradually pushed primaries forward as a more democratic process to pick nominees. Primaries gained importance over the years. Notably, in the 1960 Democratic nomination primaries had gained enough importance that JFK was able to use a strong performance in them to defeat Lyndon Johnson. Johnson had been running a more traditional campaign courting party leaders for their support and had ignored the primaries.

This gradual evolution came to an end in 1968. The 1968 Democratic Convention was a disaster. The Democrats were in a state of chaos over the Vietnam War. President Johnson had chosen not to run for re-election, instead anointing Hubert Humphrey his successor. Like Johnson in 1960, Humphrey did not competed in any primaries. Instead he relied on party leaders to deliver him delegates.  Humphrey won on the first ballot, but it was an ugly win. The victory of party leadership left many who had voted in primaries bitter and disenchanted.

After the 1968 convention, Democrats began a long process to reform their nomination system. Led by George McGovern, these new rules were the precursor to the modern primary. Democratic competitions became the central aspect of the nominating process for both parties, as Republicans copied Democratic reforms. The new process was designed to be more open, more fair, and less likely to cause future clashes between party leadership and rank and file.

The only remaining hint of the old system is the presence of super delegates in the Democratic Party. These delegates are not elected, but are instead allowed to vote by virtue of their status in the party. Most major elected Democrats serve as super delegates. Super delegates are supposed to allow the party a way out of a deadlocked convention, by putting their support behind a candidate so that he or she can win on the first ballot.

Is this new primary system more democratic? That is a complex question. The new process has certainly empowered the residents of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. In most post-1968 elections, the first several states have effectively chosen the nominee, with other states simply ratifying their decision.

Another result of this new process has been the gradual transformation of the convention from a decision making body to something more similar to an infomercial. Instead of negotiating political deals, the party faithful simply gather to talk about their priorities and nominate a choice by acclamation. The party platform has also become more irrelevant in the modern era of ideologically consistent parties.

This system has been in place for more than forty years, but it has come under increasing strain in modern times. The 2008 and 2012 election saw serious competition between states to be among the first (and therefore most significant) states to hold their contests. As a result some states lost part of or all of their delegation at least for a time. The long contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton also called the power of super delegates into question, as some worried about a democratic result being overturned at the convention. Recently commentators have voiced concerns about having two of the demographically whitest states (Iowa and New Hampshire) go first, given the diverse nature of the country.

The biggest challenge may come this year if Sen. Marco Rubio is serious about pushing all the way for a brokered convention. Given the reduced nature of the convention, it is hard to imagine it transforming back into a serious decision making body. Could a modern American political party overrule the plurality decision of its voters? It is difficult to believe, but this campaign season has been unprecedented in American political history.

The American primary system has changed dramatically over the years: from the early days of the republic when congressional caucuses chose nominees, to the ascendance of boss rule and finally to the modern system. The rules systems will need to continue to change to keep up with the changing needs of the American political system. It remains to be seen what changes those will be, or if they will continue to move in the direction of increased democracy or return to more oligarchical roots.


Edited by: Marcos Duran

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