In yesterday’s New York Times, a story suggests that after this year’s election, the U.S. political parties might struggle over whether to re-design our primary system. But before we think about potential changes, let’s examine the unique system we have today — and expose two myths usually told about how we got here. Many Americans will be surprised to learn that few democracies give primary elections a dominant role in selecting their parties’ nominees for the country’s highest office. In most systems, elected party members take a major role in choosing or filtering potential candidates. In Britain, for example, to be a Labour Party nominee for prime minister, you need to be nominated by 15 percent of Labour’s members in Parliament; the Conservative Party members nominate just two candidates. The wider party membership then chooses from this narrowed field, although only 1 percent of registered voters are party members (compared with 60 percent or so in the United States), because party membership entails more significant obligations. But starting in the 1970s, the United States stumbled — and I do mean stumbled — into a system that eliminated any meaningful role for party figures. Instead, unmediated popular participation, through caucuses and primary elections, came to control the way we choose presidential nominees. That uniquely populist system, which we now take for granted, has culminated in our current, stunning moment. Two essentially freelance, independent political figures — Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders — will either represent, or come surprisingly close to representing, the nation’s two major parties in the 2016 election.
Let’s consider two myths usually told about how we got to this point. For most of the 20th century, from 1912 to 1972, we used one system for presidential nominations. The conventional story about this “old” system is that party bosses got together in smoke-filled back rooms and chose the parties’ candidates, without much popular input. But that old system was actually far more complex and would be more accurately described as a “mixed system.” Starting in 1912, when Teddy Roosevelt pressed for primary elections to enable him to challenge his own party’s incumbent president, this mixed system included some primary elections, but they didn’t dominate.
As late as 1968, only 16 to 17 states used primaries. Those primaries selected fewer than half the delegates. The other delegates were institutional party figures from the national, state and local level (some chosen because of their positions in government or the party organization, others chosen through party-selection processes).
In this mixed system, the popular primaries and the party leaders checked and balanced each other’s influence. No committee designed the system in a single moment to create the “perfect” mix of popular and party roles; as often happens with democratic institutions, the system emerged from competing pressures over time.