Primary, Direct

views updated


PRIMARY, DIRECT. Suspicious of public officials and of interest groups, Progressive thinkers of the early twentieth century sought to give individual voters a more direct role in government by curing "the ills of democracy (with) more democracy." Although not a new idea at the time, the direct primary became the most lasting Progressive reform and the most common form of primary election now used for all elected offices in the United States except the presidency. In the direct primary, party members who want to run for office file petitions to have their names placed on the ballot, allowing voters to vote directly for the candidates of their choice. Two types of direct primaries exist. A closed primary, used in almost all of the states, is limited to those people who have previously registered as members of a party in whose primary they are voting. An open primary allows individuals to vote across party lines as in the regular election process.

Before primary elections were used on a regular basis in the twentieth century, political parties nominated candidates for office at party conventions and caucuses. From the 1790s to the 1830s, the congressional and legislative caucuses made nominations for public office. From the 1830s until the early 1900s, the preferred method of nomination was by delegate conventions. Party primaries were introduced as early as 1842, when the Democratic Party of Crawford County, Pennsylvania, first used the system. Later, party primaries were used to nominate candidates for local offices in California and New York in 1866 and soon became the standard in other states throughout the rest of the nineteenth century. Primaries became the centerpiece of the Progressive movement when the first presidential primary law was passed in Florida in 1901. In 1905, Robert M. La Follette's Progressive Movement in Wisconsin gave impetus to the principle of nominating candidates by direct voting of party members. Oregon became the first state to adopt a preferential primary in 1910, a primary where voters voted for their favorite candidates and voted for convention delegates separately. Presidential primaries rose to popularity during the election of 1912, when at least thirteen primaries were held.

Primaries played a relatively minor role in presidential elections until the 1960s, when John F. Kennedy entered the West Virginia primary to test whether or not a Catholic could do well in a predominantly Protestant state. As of 2002, the presidential primary was used in about three-quarters of the states to choose delegates to the national party conventions. Several states, most notably Iowa, still use the caucus system to nominate presidential candidates.


Diclerico, Robert E., and James W. Davis. Choosing Our Choices: Debating the Presidential Nominating Process. Lanham, Md.: Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, 2000.

Galderisi, Peter F., Marni Ezra, and Michael Lyons, eds. Congressional Primaries and the Politics of Representation. Lanham, Md.: Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, 2001.

Kendall, Kathleen E. Communication in the Presidential Primaries: Candidates and the Media, 1912–2000. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2000.

James F.Adomanis

See alsoElections ; Caucus ; Machine, Political ; Political Parties .