A History of U.S. Presidential Primaries: 1912-64
By Bob Benenson, CQ Politics Editor
When it comes to electing the President, the modern campaign era has its roots 95 years ago when North Dakota held the first presidential primary. CQ Politics looks back and charts for you, election by election, how this process grew over the last century into the long and sprawling campaigns that have become part of the political landscape. This first in a series covers 1912-64.
1912 (March 19): North Dakota's launch of the first primary was an effort to open up a nominating process that had been dominated by party insiders. The Progressive political movement was a key factor in the rise of primaries and one of its members, Wisconsin Republican Sen. Robert M. La Follette, won the North Dakota primary, with former President Theodore Roosevelt finishing second. Roosevelt went on to win in most of the 12 other states that held primaries in this inaugural year. When William Howard Taft used his control of the party machinery to win the delegate vote at the GOP national convention, Roosevelt broke away and ran as the nominee of his newly formed (and ephemeral) Progressive, or Bull Moose, Party. Though Roosevelt made history as the only third-party candidate then or since to run ahead of an incumbent president - Taft finished last - the Republican split enabled Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win his first of two terms as president.
1920 (March 9): New Hampshire established its still-unbroken tradition of holding the nation's first presidential primary. Leonard Wood, a New Hampshire native who was a brigadier general and Army chief of staff, won the Republican primary - all Democratic primary votes went to "unpledged delegates" - and finished second in the combined vote for the year's 20 primaries to California Sen. Hiram Johnson. But at the convention, party chieftains tapped Ohio Sen. Warren G. Harding, who competed only in his home state's April 27 primary. Harding won the 1920 general election but died in office in 1923.
1932: Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, the governor of New York, outpaced his nearest rival by a ratio of more than 2 to 1 in the overall primary vote en route to winning his first of four nominations and elections for president. Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover, his popularity unraveled by the onset of the Great Depression, trailed former Maryland Sen. Joseph I. France by 15 percentage points in the overall GOP primary vote; though he prevailed at the convention, his primary problems signaled the end of his presidential tenure. Roosevelt won that November in a landslide 57 percent to 40 percent.
1944: With the nation embroiled in World War II and Roosevelt running for an unprecedented fourth term, only 15 states held primaries this year. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the commander of the U.S. forces in the Pacific, was not a candidate, yet his name was entered by activists urging him to run for the Republican nomination and he dominated the early primaries in Wisconsin (April 5) and Illinois (April 11). But the convention that year ultimately went for New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, who ran well in the 1940 primaries but lost the nomination to Indiana businessman Wendell Willkie. Dewey lost but held Roosevelt to 53 percent, the smallest vote share Roosevelt ever had for president, and established himself as the front-runner for the 1948 GOP nomination.
1948: President Harry S. Truman, who moved up from vice president when Roosevelt died in April 1945, led a fractious Democratic Party that splintered at its convention: A conservative, segregationist Southern faction led by South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond broke away to form the States' Rights Party, while a faction on the left joined former Vice President Henry Wallace in founding the Progressive Party. But these rifts were little in evidence in the primaries, which were dominated by Truman. Dewey, as in 1944, relied on support from party insiders and did not campaign heavily in most Republican primaries. Truman, enduring the brunt of postwar economic problems, began the campaign as the underdog to Dewey but scored a historic upset.
1952 (March 11): Though New Hampshire had been going first for more than 30 years, it had almost always elected slates of unpledged delegates. The 1952 campaign was the first in which the state played a major role in shaping the parties' nominating campaigns. On the Democratic side, Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver outran incumbent President Truman by 55 percent to 44 percent; Truman, hobbled by public disapproval of the stalemated Korean War, had hinted he would not run again and announced his retirement shortly after New Hampshire, though he insisted the primary result had not driven his decision. On the Republican side, retired Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commander of Allied troops in Europe during World War II, established himself as a force by defeating Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft by 50 percent to 39 percent in New Hampshire. Though Taft ended up with more combined primary votes, convention delegates selected Eisenhower. Democratic delegates opted for Illinois Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson over Kefauver, who had dominated the total primary vote. Eisenhower easily defeated Stevenson in November, as he did in their 1956 rematch.
1960: Sen. John F. Kennedy, a little less than two months short of his 43rd birthday, established himself as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination by winning the April 5 primary in Wisconsin - the first after the New Hampshire contest March 8, which Kennedy, of neighboring Massachusetts, won easily. Kennedy appeared to be at a regional disadvantage in his one-on-one matchup with Minnesota Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, making his 13 percentage-point victory margin even more impressive. The contest was captured in the well-regarded documentary film "Primary." Kennedy went on to another impressive win, and effectively ended Humphrey's hopes for the nomination by winning easily in West Virginia, overcoming doubts that the state's overwhelmingly Protestant electorate would go for Kennedy's bid to become the nation's first Roman Catholic president. Kennedy faced competitors at the convention - including Texas Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, who would become Kennedy's vice president and ultimate successor - but clinched the nomination on the first ballot. He went on to win a very narrow general election victory over Republican Richard M. Nixon, the two-term vice president, who faced little primary opposition in his bid to succeed Dwight D. Eisenhower.
1964: Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, a pioneering leader of the ideological conservative movement within the Republican Party, effectively sealed his nomination for president with a close victory in June 2 primary in California; he won by 52 percent to 48 percent over New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, who then was the premier figure in the then-sizable liberal wing of the national GOP. The conservative emergence was premature: Democrats still maintained the dominance they had enjoyed for most of the three decades since the rise of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and succeeded at portraying the militarily hawkish Goldwater as dangerous. Johnson - who became president following the November 1963 assassination of Kennedy - won in a landslide with 61 percent of the vote. The campaign was marked, though, by the emergence of actor Ronald Reagan as a conservative Republican spokesman.
A History of U.S. Presidential Primaries: 1968-72
By Bob Benenson, CQ Politics Editor
When it comes to electing the President, the modern campaign era has its roots 95 years ago when North Dakota held the first presidential primary. CQ Politics looks back and charts for you, election by election, how this process grew over the last century into the long and sprawling campaigns that have become part of the political landscape. This second in a series covers 1968-72.
1968: The presidential primaries played a major role in one of the most tumultuous and violent years in the nation's history.
Growing dissent against Johnson's massive deployment of U.S. troops to the war in Vietnam and the rising death toll in that conflict spurred a mostly youthful movement behind the primary challenge by anti-war Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, who held the incumbent to an 8 percentage-point victory margin in the March 12 New Hampshire primary. Four days later, New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy - brother of the slain president and former U.S. attorney general - made a late entry into the race, also stating his strong opposition to the Vietnam War. Johnson on March 31 scheduled a televised address, expected to focus on the war, and made a surprise announcement that he would not run for re-election. Four days after that, the nation was rocked by the murder of black civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., which sparked destructive riots in many cities.
Humphrey, elected vice president in 1964 on Johnson's ticket, became the candidate of the Democratic establishment, but he did not participate in the primaries, relying on party regulars who still controlled most of the convention delegates to secure the nomination for him. The remaining primaries became showdowns between Kennedy and McCarthy, culminating with Kennedy's 46 percent to 42 percent victory in the June 4 California contest. That win would have made Kennedy the leading alternative to Humphrey, but he was shot and mortally wounded by an assassin moments after delivering his victory speech.
Humphrey did win at the August convention in Chicago, but raucous conflicts between regulars and anti-war forces inside the hall and violent clashes between police and protestors in the streets tarnished the Democrats. Humphrey's late comeback could not prevent Republican Nixon, staging a remarkable political comeback, from winning the general election by less than 1 percent of the vote, with former Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace - a staunchly conservative defender of racial segregation - running a strong third-party campaign. Nixon dominated most of the Republican primaries, though he ceded California and its large bloc of delegates to Reagan, who had been elected the state's governor in 1966.
1972: Demands by liberal activists to ease the iron grip that party insiders had long held on the nominating process led to a Democratic Party commission, co-chaired by South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, that spurred an increase in the number of primaries and also opened up many of the caucuses held by non-primary states to broader public participation. McGovern, a strong opponent of the Vietnam War, then launched a bid for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination, which he ultimately won.
McGovern entered the race as a longshot. Maine Sen. Edmund S. Muskie was Humphrey's vice presidential running mate in 1968 and made a good impression, setting himself up as the early favorite for 1972. But Muskie became an early victim of the primary expectations game.
Iowa Democratic officials slated their previously little noticed presidential precinct caucuses for Jan. 24, more than a month before the March 7 New Hampshire primary. Muskie won, but his 36 percent (tied with "uncommitted") was widely deemed unimpressive; McGovern, whose 23 percent was much better than expected, got most of the press. Muskie then had a bumpy New Hampshire campaign, best remembered for his emotional reaction to negative stories about him and his wife published in the Manchester Union Leader, which then was a strongly conservative voice in state politics. Muskie held a press event on a snowy day to denounce the stories (some of which, it later turned out, were dirty tricks waged by operatives in the campaign of incumbent President Nixon). Muskie appeared to some observers to be crying during the event, though he said the water running down his face was melted snow. The outcome of the contest was similar to that in Iowa: Muskie won, but his 46 percent to 37 percent lead over McGovern was treated as a poor performance for the resident of neighboring Maine.
Muskie soon faded from the race, but McGovern's nomination was not certain until the end of the primary season. Humphrey sought a rematch with Nixon, and Wallace brought his campaign of conservative reaction back within the Democratic fold. But the campaign again was punctuated by violence: Wallace, who had won three Southern state primaries, was shot and gravely wounded by a fame-seeking assailant while campaigning for the May 16 Maryland primary. Though voters gave Wallace stunning victories in Maryland and in Michigan the same day, his inability to campaign ended his chances.
McGovern effectively sealed the nomination with a 5 percentage-point win over Humphrey in the June 6 California primary. But his campaign stumbled badly, and Nixon - branding McGovern an extreme liberal and promising "peace with honor" in Vietnam - won a 49-state electoral landslide. Though Democrats sought to connect Nixon to a break-in at the Democratic National Committee's Watergate complex offices that June, the incident played virtually no role in the election's outcome.