New Book Traces History of Presidential Primary Process

Saturday's Republican primary race in South Carolina gave a big boost to political outsider Donald Trump, and left many Republicans stunned when the establishment candidate, Jeb Bush, dropped out of the race.

A new book by Geoffrey Cowan, director of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, traces the history of the presidential primary process from its first days in 1912, when Teddy Roosevelt tried and failed to win the presidential nomination.  

The book is called "Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary."

“There have been four phases of the way in which presidential candidates were nominated, and the first of those phases was members of Congress decided. Then there were conventions that were decided, started by Andrew Jackson,” Cowan said. “Then in 1912, for the first time voters could actually participate in presidential primaries and that’s what my story’s about.”

“But the primaries were only in a certain number of states, and so the party leaders could still reject the choice of the voters and that’s what happened to Teddy Roosevelt in 1912," he added. "In 1968, I was actually working for Eugene McCarthy and had friends in the Bobby Kennedy campaign but Hubert Humphrey was going to get the nomination without having won a single primary.

"So I was part of party reforms that said after this the people should rule and really, virtually all of the candidates were picked through a presidential primary, making it almost impossible to overturn the rule of the people.”

Below, some additional highlights from our conversation.

On specific candidates that have been helped by the more populous primary system

"I think that if you didn’t have the primary system at all Jack Kennedy wouldn’t have been picked in 1960—not because the bosses wouldn’t have liked him but they wouldn’t have thought a Catholic could win. So he went in to West Virginia, a Protestant-Baptist state, won and proved a Catholic could win…

"Ronald Reagan—in 1980, people thought he was too old—now he looked young … so on the edge of 70th birthday people didn’t think he was vigorous enough and he ran this very vigorous campaign and he was nominated.

"And actually, I think there’s no chance that Barack Obama would’ve been picked if there hadn’t been a system like this."

On how the primary process can be reformed

"I think there are a lot of reforms that could make a lot of sense. One is the system is dizzingly confusing. Confusing for you as a reporter, confusing for the candidates, confusing for voters. I think it could be made more standardized.

"I think there ought to be a system, and this is controversial, but I believe that Independents should always be allowed to vote in a party primary. They could in New Hampshire, but in many states they can’t. Forty percent of the American public are Independents, but they don’t participate in choosing the candidate of either party in many states."

On whether Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee     

"I know that a lot of party insiders think that he won’t be. [Based on] that they don’t want him to be. That’s really what their reasoning is but I think they may find it very hard to stop him."


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