Nominating System

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NOMINATING SYSTEM. The method of choosing candidates for the presidency of the United States has undergone dramatic changes since the adoption of the Constitution. The caucus, a loose collection of members of a political group that had been used in local elections during the colonial period, was first adopted as a means of choosing candidates for local elections and for nominating governor and other state officials. The first "congressional caucus, " composed of members of Congress belonging to the same political party, was an informal meeting called by Alexander Hamilton in 1790 for the Federalist Party to choose candidates for the presidency and the vice presidency. It took the opposition ten years to officially form a similar group, a "congressional nominating caucus, " which supported Thomas Jefferson in his bid for the presidency in 1800. Henry Clay, a member of the Democratic-Republican Party and Speaker of the House of Representatives, institutionalized the caucus as a means to foster congressional voting along the party line in 1811.

In the absence of a unified national party structure, the congressional caucuses soon became the most important groups for coordinating the nomination of candidates for the presidency for both parties. As long as the first two-party system worked, and as long as each party was relatively homogeneous and could easily reach a compromise on its candidates, this system was effective. After the demise of the Federalist Party the nomination of the Democratic-Republican John Quincy Adams was challenged in the campaign of 1824 by a number of strong competitors from within his own party, and the system began to break down. The caucus, favoring William H. Crawford, was boycotted by a vocal minority so that in the end only about one-fourth of its members participated. The other three candidates from the Democratic-Republican Party, Adams, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson, were nominated by state assemblies or regional caucuses and staged regional trial votes to gain public endorsement. No one candidate received a majority in the electoral college, and the election was decided in the House of Representatives.

After the split of the Democratic-Republican Party, no new caucuses were established and the new parties continued to use the supposedly more democratic decentralized nominating process. Regional party conventions had been staged, and in 1831 the newly established Anti-Masonic Party, having no elected representatives to form a congressional caucus, came up with the idea of inviting delegates from regional party chapters to a national convention to nominate the presidential candidate. Within months, the National Republicans copied the concept. Soon, committees were created to devise delegate credentials, rules, and a party platform. Delegates were selected either by caucuses, party members who served in state legislatures, or regional party leaders. The Democratic Party decided that the number of delegates from the individual states should be equal to the number of that states' members in the electoral college, and in 1832, the Democrats devised a "two-thirds rule" for selecting candidates. Established to prevent the nomination of John C. Calhoun, it was not challenged for a century and gave strong minorities a veto power.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had barely succeeded in 1932 in reaching a two-thirds majority for his nomination, was instrumental in changing the required margin for victory to a simple majority for the convention in 1940. The Democrats from the southern states, who had held a ruling minority under the old system, were compensated by the introduction of a bonus system that increased the number of delegates from those states that had been won for the Democrat's candidate in previous presidential elections. The Republican Party had already introduced a negative bonus system that reduced the number of delegates from states lost to the Democrats in 1916 and added a positive bonus in 1924. A unit rule had been introduced in 1844, forcing delegates from each state to vote as a block. The Democratic Party kept this rule until 1968, while the Whigs and later the Republican Party abided by it only at some conventions and only until 1880.

The convention system for choosing candidates was criticized almost from the start. Originating in 1903 in Wisconsin, a new system of using primaries was introduced by the Progressive Party. In 1904, Florida became the first state to adopt primaries to select delegates for national party conventions, and by 1916, the Democratic and Republican Parties in twenty states used this system. It failed, however, to attract a large number of voters, and many candidates over the next several decades avoided primaries or ran in only a select few to demonstrate that they could attract popular votes. Primaries thus were hardly consequential and in 1912 Theodore Roosevelt's name was not even proposed for the nomination at the Republican convention despite his winning nine of thirteen primaries that year. In 1952, the Democrats nominated Adlai Stevenson as presidential candidate even though Estes Kefauver had won twelve of fifteen primaries. In the wake of the unrest at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, the McGovern-Fraser Commission was established; it proposed a series of sweeping changes for most aspects of delegate selection. The Democratic Party's National Committee adopted nearly all recommendations, which were subsequently taken over by the state parties and converted by many state legislatures into statutes for both parties. Measures for translating public support for candidates into delegates, eliminating automatic ex-officio slots, and ensuring equitable representation of women and minorities led to invigoration of the primaries. While in 1968, about one-third of all delegates to Democratic and Republican conventions had been selected in primaries, this share increased to 85 percent for the Democratic Party and 90 percent for the Republican Party in 2000.

Because of the increasing coverage of primaries and their results through the media, they have become highly contested. Primaries are conducted mostly from February to June, and early primaries in Iowa and in New Hampshire have become particularly important for lesser-known candidates who seek crucial media coverage and rely on establishing financial support for their campaign. On "Super Tuesday" (which in the year 2000 fell on March 7), a large number of delegates are selected in about one-third of the states (particularly in states, such as California, New York, and Ohio, that send a high number of delegates to the conventions), possibly pointing toward the establishment of a national primary day.


Coleman, Kevin J., Thomas H. Neale, and Joseph E. Cantor. Presidential Elections in the United States: A Primer. Huntington, N.Y.: Novinka, 2001.

Keeter, Scott, and Cliff Zukin. Uninformed Choice: The Failure of the New Presidential Nominating System. New York: Praeger, 1983.


See alsoCaucus ; Conventions, Party Nominating ; Elections, Presidential ; Two-Party System ; Voting .