Bruce J. Schulman: The “Smoke-Filled Room” Never Looked So Good

Roundup: Historians' Take

Bruce J. Schulman, the William E. Huntington Professor of History at Boston University, is the author of "The Seventies" (DaCapo Press).

A traveling carnival of candidates arrives in another town (and on another network) for a weekly debate more than a year before Election Day — a schedule so mind-numbing that some candidates will now pass up debates and the free publicity that they provide. States jockey for ever-earlier positions on the presidential selection calendar — playing a game of chicken, with the outcome barely averting pushing the first contest of 2012 back into 2011. Meanwhile, parties, candidates and SuperPACs collect billions in contributions, setting the stage for an unprecedented and unbelievably expensive barrage of campaign ads.

Is this any way to choose the leader of the world’s richest, most powerful nation?...

The primary system is no sainted legacy of the Founding Fathers, it’s a relative newcomer. Believe it or not, primaries did not decide the major party presidential nominations until the 1970s. As late as 1968, the race for the White House featured just 15 primaries selecting only 40 percent of convention delegates. Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, and he didn’t run in a single primary!

Florida enacted the first presidential primary law in 1901, but the movement really took off after the 1904 Republican National Convention when the party leadership refused to seat the delegation led by Robert M. LaFollette, Wisconsin’s reformist Republican governor, instead recognizing the slate organized by the party machine. Outraged by the snub, “Battlin’ Bob” returned home and shepherded through a law providing for the mandatory election of national convention delegates by the party’s members. But the law lacked any provision for indicating the delegates’ preferences for presidential contenders: Voters would elect convention delegates, but they would not be openly identified with or pledged to vote for a particular candidate. LaFollette’s reform wrested power from party machines, but the convention, not the rank-and-file still chose the nominee.

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