Amidst the ongoing controversies surrounding the Republican primary calendar — with Florida moving its contest to late January, and triggering a move up by the officially sanctioned early states — some people have probably wondered if it might be possible to come up with better ways to pick a presidential nominee. But is there, really? Already every cycle, the parties review the rules of their primary processes, and often make small or large adjustments. But can they produce major change?
New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner told TPM: “Well, would another commission be successful, when we’ve had a commission almost every four years going back for 30 years?” (For the history of the New Hampshire primary, see our post in which we interviewed Garder.)
And for his own part, Florida GOP chair Lenny Curry told TPM that the state is not trying to challenge New Hampshire’s spot as the first primary. “No way,” said Curry, explaining that “there’s a tradition there, there’s a history there. It’s important, and it matters, and it works. So by no means do we want to — that was never the intent.” So what does Florida want?
“We would like to see Florida to remain an early state that goes by itself. We are too big, and too important,” said Curry. “And we can debate how we get there, but what is important is we get there, and we get there consistently, and we’re not having a debate every four years as to why Florida should be there early, and by itself.”
With all that in mind, it is worth remembering just how the modern primary system developed — in a process that lasted decades, before it became formalized about 40 years ago. And counter-intuitively, many of the same forces that shaped the process becoming what it is today, may also be the same ones that could prevent a truly centralized reform.
In 1969, following the many controversies that beset the 1968 Democratic convention — in which Vice President Hubert Humphrey was nominated without winning any primaries, on the basis of victories in caucuses and state party conventions, which in those days were sparsely attended and dominated by party insiders — the Dems convened a special commission to overhaul and reform primary and caucus process, and open up participation. The commission was co-chaired by Sen. George McGovern (D-SD), who went on to become the party’s nominee for president in 1972, and Rep. Donald Fraser (D-MN).
It was from that commission that Democrats formalized many rules that people take for granted today: More widespread participation in primaries, caucuses that are adequately advertised and open to the public, proportional representation of delegates, and many more. And over the years, the Republicans copied many of those same principles, fostering the competitive national primary races we see today.
“There weren’t any young people involved, they were out in the streets protesting,” McGovern said of the 1968 convention, in an interview with TPM. “There were very few women inside the convention, that was the basic problem. And under that circumstance, there were other abuses. Sometimes caucuses were held without notifying anybody, and the only people that knew about them were a few insiders.”
“I don’t blame Humphrey, either,” McGovern added. “He was operating as we had always operated, by getting the endorsements of the mayors in large cities, and the heads of the party in various states, members of Congress, governors. And that comprised the process of selecting the nominee up until ‘69. I don’t blame Humphrey for exploiting it, because that’s the way it was done.”