On Elections

How people elect parliaments

A brief history of presidential primaries

Welcome to the 13th US presidential primary election season!

The spectacular manner in which the major US political parties select their nominees for presidential elections is just less than half a century old.

Prior to the 1970s, the system for selecting nominees relied entirely on delegates to the national Conventions. Candidates campaigned not directly to the voters, but to the party backrooms and powerbrokers. For over a century, this internal manner of pre-selection had been the rule.

In the late 1960s a fresh breeze of direct-election democracy blew through the smoke-filled rooms. In 1968 both parties began to experiment with delegates selected by direct election. 12 states ran such elections for both parties, and two more did so for the just the Democratic party.

US primaries initial states in 1968.png

The initial states which held primaries in 1968; 12 for both parties (purple) together with West Virginia and Florida for the Democratic party only

In 1972 the Republican party expanded the practice to all 50 states, and the Democratic party expanded it to 26. In 1976 the Democratic party followed suit with primaries in all 50 states.

Data on all the election years, including the votes won by each of the contestants, is available in the ‘historical results’ tab of the attached data file.

Most of the states conducted true primary elections, with an election day where voters attended polling places. A minority of states conducted their primaries by caucuses – evening meeting events held in hundreds of hired or private venues across the state. Fewer people attend caucuses than vote in primaries, but the do feature a higher level of political discussion and debate among the voters.

US primaries 2016 - caucus states.png

The caucus states as of 2016; 12 states for both parties, together with North Dakota and Kentucky for the Republican party and Idaho for the Democratic party

From the beginning, and until recent election cycles, the principle was that the candidate who won the most votes in a state would be awarded all the delegates for that state (known as the ‘winner-take-all’ principle). Such a practice favoured the leading candidates, burning off the minor contestants quickly in the season and allowing results to become clear rapidly in most election years.

In the last decade the parties have shifted to a more democratic practice of allocating delegates proportionally. In 2016 the Democratic system is proportional in every state, while the Republican system is roughly 46% proportional, 28% winner-take-all, and 7% a hybrid of the two (the remaining 18% of delegates being unelected).

The proportional races are divided in turn into two components: delegates awarded based on statewide vote totals, and delegates awarded based on congressional district boundaries.

The newer system still disproportionately favours leading candidates; in all Democratic and many Republican proportional races candidates polling less than a threshold – often 15% of the vote – get nothing. But the system is clearly fairer than winner-take-all.

The practical worry for parties is that with this approach the contest goes on longer in the season, costing more to finance the campaigns and continuing public attacks between candidates within each party.

The history of the primary system shows a lot of variety. Over the years many races were hardly contests at all, as one party favourite ran away with the lead from the start. Sitting presidents seeking a second term were usually – though not always – shown the respect of renomination without any challengers from their own party.

Leaving aside the transitional 1968 and 1972 cycles, which still largely resembled the old party-internal system, there have only really been a handful of contests which remained in doubt till the end.

In 1976, Ronald Reagan almost overthrew sitting President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. The numbers of elected delegates each had won were so close that they did not decide the issue, and despite Reagan having a narrow lead, the party’s unelected delegates swung in at the party convention to rescue the President in office. Ford rewarded their support by losing the real election to Democrat Jimmy Carter a few months later.

In turn, in 1980, Democrat Ted Kennedy mounted a strong challenge to the sitting president Carter. Once again, Carter fought off the challenger only to lose the coming national election.

From 1984 to 2004, both parties contests resolved around a leader emerging fairly early on in the season. The 2000 Republican race looked a bit more exciting, with John McCain mounting a respectable challenge to party favourite George Bush, but the party hierarchy fought back firmly against the plucky insurgent senator.

But the outstanding contest in terms of excitement was the 2008 Democratic contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Turnout records were demolished by not one but both rivals as over 35 million Americans took part in the contest between the two. The column chart below looks like the pre-2001 New York skyline: the two towers being the vote tallies for the two Democratic candidates.

US primaries - total vote tally cityscape2.png

While Barack Obama wrapped up a lead in the delegate count, and became the party nominee, it was Hillary Clinton who actually won the popular vote total, 17.8 million to 17.5 million. Both votes far exceed any others in the half century of primary races.

(They could have been even higher. In two large states – Michigan and Florida – the voting did not proceed due to controversies over the timing of the event. Hillary Clinton was known to have the stronger support in both states.)

Analysis by vote totals of the races in the history of the primary system are not particularly useful, it must be said. Around 15 states have held caucuses rather than primary elections, sharply reducing their voter turnouts. When sitting presidents run, they are often uncontested. When races seem to be wrapped up early, turnout drops away in later states, including the largest state California, which traditionally votes very late in the season.

The Democratic race of 2008 stands out as the one really impressive event. It had real benefits for the party as a whole, causing millions of new party supporters to get registered, motivating voter interest in politics and drawing high attention to the candidates. All of these impacts added not only to Obama’s historic election win that year but to success in congressional elections as well.

In the last two cycles, the Republican contest has been more diverse and more stridently contested. While the eventually party nominees John McCain (2008) and Mitt Romney (2012) progressively pulled ahead of their rivals, the scene has been set that in the present era Republican contests are open, vibrant and unpredictable affairs. This has culminated in the turbulent lead-up to the 2016 race, where as many as 20 campaigns got underway to some extent, and 12 are still active as the primary season starts. This is costing the party and its donors serious money to finance, and is both a symptom and an aggravator of the party’s complex internal divisions.

Meanwhile the 2016 Democratic race has many of the hallmarks of the 2008 race; a strong contest between two substantial rivals, being conducted with real policy differences but with less of the destructive animosity seen in the Republican battle (so far). It may well be that a policy-based but respectable contest serves the Democratic party well, just as it did on 2008.

And one of those two Democratic contestants is once again the all-time highest vote winner in US primaries, Hillary Clinton.


31 January 2016

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