Power  /  Explainer

A Century of Reforms Made Iowa and New Hampshire Presidential Kingmakers

But did they backfire?

More than a year after presidential contenders announced their bids, the 2020 campaign is heating up this week with the caucuses in Iowa and then a primary in New Hampshire. These long-awaited contests spotlight the length of American campaigns: Over the past year, Canada and the United Kingdom have already gone start to finish, from the announcement of an election date to the formation of a new government. Meanwhile, in Germany, Australia and elsewhere, major political parties installed new leaders in efficient, straightforward procedures (in some cases without a contest).

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.

In 1912, for the first time in presidential contests, a dozen states held primaries. That year, former president Theodore Roosevelt challenged President William H. Taft for the Republican nomination. But even though Roosevelt won most of the primaries, they accounted for only a handful of delegates to the national convention; the party establishment easily turned back the challenge and renominated Taft.

That remained the situation for the next half-century. Although primaries sometimes raised a candidate’s profile — John F. Kennedy’s strong showing convinced party leaders that he would make a strong candidate in November — they never selected the candidate. As late as 1968, the Democratic presidential nominee, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, opted not to compete in his party’s primaries and did not win a single one of the 15 contests held that year. Still, as the candidate of the party establishment, he easily won the nomination.

The disastrous Democratic National Convention in 1968 prompted reforms, and beginning with the Democrats in 1972 and unfolding gradually to shape both parties over the following decades, the selection process opened up, weakening the power of elites in both major parties and completing a long-term shift from party-centered politics, in which party organizations remained the principal mechanisms through which politicians mobilized and communicated with voters, to the mass mediated politics of today.

In 1972, insurgent George McGovern leveraged his strength in the primaries to become his party’s standard-bearer against the wishes of Democratic leaders. By 1980, there were 36 primaries, and they had become decisive. Even though the party brass united against him, by the time Donald Trump rode down an escalator in 2016, the Republican establishment was powerless to derail his candidacy.

Caucuses, like this week’s contest in Iowa, also underwent a transformation in the early 1970s. The same impulses that swelled the number and influence of primaries — the desire to open party procedures to ordinary voters, to weaken political bosses and to include new voices in party affairs — also affected states that maintained caucuses. (Some states decided primaries cost too much to run; Iowa, for example, held a primary in 1916 and switched back to caucuses.)

Although every caucus state (and the two parties) follows different rules, caucusgoers do not line up at a polling place but gather in churches, schools and libraries. They typically divide into groups supporting one or another candidate, try to win over their neighbors, winnow the field by excluding candidates with few supporters and discuss again. When the evening ends, a final head count is reported.

Because precinct caucuses mark only the first stage in a complicated process of delegate selection that took months to complete, in 1972 Iowa Democrats moved the event from May to January, making it the nation’s first contest.

Four years later, little known Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter realized that a victory in Iowa, even if it accounted for few of the delegates he needed to win the presidential nomination — and even if the delegate tally would not be final for months — could shape media coverage of his candidacy, boost fundraising and create momentum for the upcoming primaries. While his rivals ignored the state, Carter spent months going door to door, ingratiating himself with local reporters and even having his staff send personal thank-you notes to voters he had met.

The strategy succeeded. Carter topped all of his rivals (even though he finished second to “uncommitted”). Ever since, Iowa has held the nation’s first contest for both parties, giving the Hawkeye State an outsize influence in the presidential selection process. Because of its status as a swing state, neither party wants to infuriate Iowans by suggesting a change in the calendar.

The outgrowth of a long, circuitous history, the current system of presidential candidate selection has become a long, complicated ordeal. The process puts a premium on candidates’ personalities — their ability to connect with voters, to project an air of authenticity, to distinguish themselves from their rivals. Pitting members of the same party against one another for months (or even years), the system forces contenders to emphasize their independence, their individual qualifications for the presidency, rather than their leadership of a united party. That makes governing more difficult once they reach the White House.

The system also has become hugely expensive, demanding constant pleas for cash. The presidential primaries La Follette and his fellow reformers created to restrain the influence of Big Money has installed one billionaire, Trump, in the Oval Office, with two others, Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, in the field to replace him. And even though the heirs to La Follette’s progressive ideals, such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), eschew donations from fat cats and corporations, their campaigns depend on aggressive fundraising operations. Were La Follette around to see his handiwork today, he might weep.