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A Century of Reforms Made Iowa and New Hampshire Presidential Kingmakers

But did they backfire?

How did this bizarre American nominating process develop and why is it so protracted?

Because what began as closed party events to present a unified ticket and platform to American voters transformed into a candidate-centered system that encourages people to rail against a corrupt political establishment and demonstrate their outsider status. The turn to primaries and open caucuses was designed to inject more democratic participation into the electoral process, and it has. But it also has enhanced the influence of money in politics — something its inventors intended it to check — and created barriers to effective governance.

Since the 1830s, American political parties have nominated their candidates for president and vice president at national conventions. That remains the official procedure even if, since the 1970s, the results have been a foregone conclusion and the conventions have become infomercials rather than deliberative proceedings. Conventions not only allowed different factions and regions to unite, they also functioned as occasions for party building, to make secret bargains that cemented local organizations together. State delegations typically backed their “favorite sons,” making tedious addresses to extol the virtues of local leaders while the real action took place in smoky backrooms.

Behind the scenes, horse-trading pols angled for votes in the presidential nominating contest, offering regional factions and party bosses control over large blocs of government jobs, the runner-up spot on the ticket, even Cabinet appointments. The presidential nominee was usually someone the party believed had a good chance of winning but also someone whose backers had cut the right deals.

Caucuses played an important role in this party structure. Originating in the decades before the Civil War (Iowa held its first caucuses in the 1840s), caucuses began as meetings of local party organizations to conduct business (such as staffing party committees) and to choose convention delegates to county and state conventions. Precincts did not necessarily caucus on the same day, and their decisions rarely garnered public attention. They often included only party regulars (officeholders and employees of the organization, who owed their jobs to the machine and kicked back part of their pay in dues). From the local caucuses, party leaders brought blocs of delegates to state meetings and on to the national convention.

But by the early 20th century, reformers assailed the closed-door nominating process through which party bosses controlled the choice of candidates. In fact, Wisconsin Gov. Robert La Follette and other progressives championed the primary as the antidote for the problems caused by caucuses, which created a system dominated by moneyed interests and corrupt party bosses who served them. “Between the people and the representatives,” La Follette thundered in a speech demanding the nation’s first primaries, “there has been built up a political machine which is master of both. It is the outgrowth of the caucus and convention system.”

Guided by figures such as La Follete, who viewed the primary as the one tool that would weaken “the domination of the machine” and set public officials free to restrain the rich and powerful, Wisconsin established the first primaries in 1906.