The United States Presidential Nominating System

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Podcast Transcript

The United States Constitution lays out a set procedure for the election of a president and how a winner is determined from various candidates. 

However, it says absolutely nothing about how those candidates are determined in the first place. 

Since the first presidential election, the process by which parties have chosen their candidates has changed multiple times and quite dramatically.

Learn more about the United States Presidential Nominating System on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The United States Constitution is very clear about how a president is to be selected. 

I’ve actually covered the procedure in previous episodes, including how the Electoral College works and how all the paperwork is filed once the election takes place. 

There are contingencies built in for what happens if one candidate doesn’t get a majority of votes, and most of these contingencies have had to have been exercised at least once in history. 

However, the Constitution says nothing about how the candidates for president are selected in the first place. 

The one thing that the Founding Fathers tended to agree upon, at least immediately after the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, was the political parties would be bad for the country.

George Washington’s farewell address gave a warning against political parties when he noted,  “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”

John Adams said, “a division of the republic into two great parties … is to be dreaded as the great political evil.”

To be honest, this was more idealism than anything else. There were very clear divisions between the Founding Fathers from the beginning. While avoiding political parties might have been ideal, even Thomas Jefferson knew that eventually, parties would form because humans tend to organize into factions. 

When the first presidential election took place, there were no other candidates other than George Washington. Washington was a consensus choice and won the first Electoral College unanimously. He was viewed as the only person who could lead the country precisely because it was so divided. 

He was reelected again in 1792 unanimously because it was feared that if he wasn’t president, things could fall apart.

Factions appeared almost immediately, and when Washington stepped down, they played a central role in the first partisan presidential election in 1796. 

By this time, there were now two established political parties: the Federalists, who included the likes of Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton, and the Democratic-Republicans, who were led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

The parties at this time were not nearly as organized as they are today. They were alliances of like-minded individuals, but there weren’t necessarily party dues and membership cards. 

When it came time for the parties to put forward who their nominees would be, it was done via a caucus of party members in Congress. Party members from both the Senate and the House would get together and come up with someone who would be the standard bearer for the party. 

Once they came to a decision, they would notify the members in their states, and if the state legislatures voted for electors of that party, that was who they were supposed to vote for.

The caucuses of 1796 were very informal, but by 1800, it became more organized.

Here, I should note that for people who live in countries without caucuses, a caucus is just a meeting where people select a nominee. There might be a vote, but votes are usually made in public or in a group setting.

Both parties held secret caucuses in 1800, only announcing their candidates to the public after the fact. However, while secret, the caucus did at least consist of formal votes among the congressional members.

The Federalist presidential caucus of 1800 was the last one ever held by the party. They continued to informally nominate candidates for the next 20 years without a formal caucus. 

The entire process was rather undemocratic. While there was an election for president, the candidates for president were selected in a way where the citizenry had absolutely no input. 

This system eventually became known as “King Caucus.”

The Democratic-Republicans continued to hold Congressional Caucuses through 1820. By 1820, the Federalists had completely fallen apart, and James Monroe ran unopposed. 

By this time, the “King Caucus” was widely considered to be an unworkable system, and almost everyone objected to it. 

The 1824 Congressional Caucus by the Democratic-Republicans was only attended by 66 of the 240 members of the party in Congress. The caucus nominated Albert Gallatin, but there were three other members of the party who threw their hat into the ring. As I covered in a previous episode, the four candidates split the vote, no one had a majority in the electoral college, and the election went to the House of Representatives, which selected John Quincy Adams. 

The election of 1824 effectively killed the Congressional Caucus system for selecting presidential nominees. 

In 1828, there were no caucuses. There were two candidates that everyone naturally gravitated towards. Andrew Jackson, who won the popular vote in 1824, and the incumbent, John Quincy Adams. Jackson and his new Democratic Party won in a landslide. 

In the run-up to the 1832 election, a new party, known as the Anti-Masonic Party, decided to select their presidential candidate in a novel way. They held a nominating convention. Held on September 26–28, 1831, it was the first nominating convention for a political party in US history. 

They had 116 delegates from across the country assemble in Baltimore, Maryland, to elect their party’s nominee.

The National Republican Party, not a forerunner of the current Republican Party, also held a nominating convention in 1831.

The Democrats were united behind Jackson, but there was division about who would be the vice president. In order to establish a consensus, the Democrats held their first convention in 1832 and selected Martin Van Buren as Jackson’s running mate. 

The convention system was an improvement over the Congressional Caucus system, to be sure, but it had its drawbacks.

More often than not, a party had no clue who its presidential nominee would be before the convention started. There wasn’t a long campaign.

All of the campaigning to become a party’s nominee was pretty much conducted at the nominating convention. Difficulties with transportation and communication at that time made it impossible to organize a campaign for nomination anywhere but a convention. 

The convention system opened up the possibility for dark horse candidates. People who no one considered going to a convention. 

In 1844, most Democrats assumed that Van Buren would be their candidate going into the convention, but after nine ballots, James K. Polk came out as the nominee. 

In 1852, the Democrats took 49 votes to select Franklin Pierce as their nominee finally. 

These conventions were hotbeds of intrigue. Who was placed on the ballot and instructions of who a delegation should vote for were determined by party leaders.

This was the metaphorical smoke-filled room where decisions were made. 

As with the caucus system, the nominating convention was also seen as undemocratic, in so far as a small number of party members got to make all the decisions. It wasn’t that different than the Caucus system. It was just a different sort of caucus system.

Each state held its own caucus to select delegates and local caucuses often selected delegates for the state caucus.

With the advent of the progressive age at the start of the 20th century, more states began to institute primaries to select delegates to the convention. 

The first state to institute a primary election was Florida in 1901. Wisconsin mandated the election of delegates to nominating conventions in 1905 and banned the use of caucuses. 

In 1910, Oregon became the first state to mandate that the delegates to a nominating convention had to vote for the candidate that won the primary election. 

Primaries didn’t spread as rapidly as you might think. Only 12 states adopted primaries by 1912. That increased to 20 in 1920 but then dropped back down to 12 between 1936 to 1968. 

Many of the primaries were not binding, which led to results like the 1912 Republican convention, where Teddy Roosevelt won almost all the primaries that took place, but William Taft won the convention. 

This weak primary system still led to results like the 1940 Republican Convention, where Wendel Wilke became the last dark horse candidate for a major political party. 

In 1952, neither Adlai Stevenson nor Dwight Eisenhower won the most primaries for their party, yet both were selected at their party’s nominating conventions. 

Just as the 1824 election destroyed the Congressional Caucus system, so too did the 1968 election destroy the weak primary system that had existed since the start of the 20th century. 

At the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Hubert Humphery won the nomination without winning a single primary. He focused his campaign on states without primaries. 

The 1968 convention was chaotic for a host of reasons, but one of the things that came out of it was a demand for more binding primary elections. 

Senator George McGovern led a commission for the Democratic Party, which encouraged the use of more primaries. 

The Republic Party followed suit by adopting more primaries, and 1972 marked the beginning of a stronger primary system. 

By 1992, the Democrats had primaries in 40 states and the Republicans in 39.

The increase in primaries had led to an increase in the length of the presidential campaigns. Rather than being conducted in a single convention, it now takes months with multiple primaries in each state.

There are still states, such as Iowa, that have caucuses. In Nevada, the Democrats have a primary, but the Republicans have both a primary and a caucus. Some states have open primaries where anyone can vote in either of the two parties, and some states have closed primaries, where you have to be a registered member of a party to vote in its primary. 

I should note that each party has its own rules regarding how they nominate their candidates. 

Each party has delegates that are known as superdelegates. Superdelegates are simply elected or high-ranking officials within a political party, such as Senators or Governors, who attend the nominating convention but were not selected in a primary or caucus. 

The Democrats currently do not allow superdelegates to vote in the first round of voting for their nominee. If a candidate doesn’t win the nomination on the first ballot, then the superdelegates may vote for whoever they choose. They make up about 15% of the total delegates. 

Republicans have superdelegates as well, but not as many, and they are bound to vote for the winner of their state’s primary or caucus. 

Because the parties can set their own rules, both parties allow US territories to have an equal vote at their nominating conventions. Guam, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands all have primaries. 

It has been decades since either major party had a contested convention. The most recent convention where a candidate came to the convention without a majority was Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984, but he still won on the first ballot. 

Despite there not having been a contested election in decades, could one still happen? Could someone come out of a modern nominating convention without having been a candidate going in? 

The answer is….absolutely. There are several scenarios where this could happen.

The first is if no one receives a majority on the first ballot, then the state delegates who were pledged to a candidate who won would be free to vote for anyone. 

Likewise, if a candidate were to decline the nomination, drop out of the race, or die before the convention, then the pledged delegates would be free to vote for whoever they want. 

For the entire episode I’ve been talking about the two major parties in the United States. However, there are smaller third parties as well.

Many of these parties do not hold primaries, but they do hold old-fashioned nominating conventions. 

For most smaller parties, the biggest problem is getting ballot access. Most states have requirements to get on the ballot for the general election, which requires either a set number of signatures on a petition or having received a threshold of votes in the previous election, often five percent. 

The entire process of selecting presidential nominees is extra-constitutional. That isn’t to say it is unconstitutional, only that the Constitution says nothing about it. 

As such, that is why the system has changed so much over time and why it will continue in the future. Every election, there are some rule changes each party makes, either major or minor, as well as changes in state laws.  

That is one of the reasons why selecting presidential candidates is such a long and complicated affair.