On Tuesday, Feb. 9, Professor of History Ronald Schatz and Visiting Assistant Professor of Government Sam Rosenfeld discussed the origin and purpose of caucuses and primaries, as well as the current state of elections. The discussion, titled “Primary Lessons,” was moderated by Assistant Professor of History Courtney Fullilove and was part of the History Matters lecture series.
In Fullilove’s opening remarks, she described the purpose of History Matters lectures.
“It’s a ‘ripped from the headlines’ sort of thing, trying to give us a better perspective on some things that are of immediate importance to us,” she said. “This seemed like an opportune moment to have a panel on the primaries. As you know, the New Hampshire primaries were today.”
However, just being aware of the primaries is not enough.
“We should know something about the political system that we’re all a part of, that we’re represented by,” Fullilove said. “It’s important to consider the ways the electoral system may or may not work…and understand the successes and failures of the system.”
Fullilove introduced Schatz who presented a historical background of the primaries.
Primaries have not always existed; they were invented after the Civil War by progressives who wanted to reduce the power of political officials. However, as they were regulated by states and not by the federal government, primaries were uncommon and relatively insignificant until the early 1900s when “let the people rule” became a popular slogan against political bosses.
The 1912 primaries were significant. President William Howard Taft lost in the primaries to Theodore Roosevelt, but nevertheless received the Republican Party nomination. Roosevelt then ran as a third-party candidate, and a hotly contested four-way presidential election ensued. Ultimately, Taft won.
1964 was the next important primary election. Rebel Senator Barry Goldwater got the Republican nomination through the primaries and caucuses. However, Goldwater’s incredibly conservative campaign was unsupported by the relatively moderate Republican Party. Goldwater was defeated by Democratic nominee Lyndon B. Johnson.
Turmoil in 1968 drastically changed the primary system. The Democratic Party was falling apart because of the antiwar movement. There were violent civil rights riots and Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Johnson was challenged by Eugene McCarthy in the primaries. However, the Democratic nomination was given to Hubert Humphrey, who had not even won a single primary vote.
The Democratic National Committee, created in 1972, rose out of the 1968 primaries chaos. Chaired by Senator George McGovern, the Committee published guidelines to increase voter participation. To follow the new guidelines, most states instituted Democratic presidential primaries. Republicans soon followed suit, and now all 50 states hold presidential primaries for both parties.
“What we get is a transformation, not only in the primaries becoming more important, but more significantly, the parties themselves are transformed,” Schatz said.
Rosenfeld now took over the discussion and spoke about Tuesday’s New Hampshire primaries.
“It’s going to be Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump,” Rosenfeld said. “And if a year ago, you were going to tell a room full of people that ‘Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are going to win the New Hampshire primaries,’ I’d be worried about what’d happen to you.”
Trying to explain the Trump/Sanders phenomena, Rosenfeld discussed party polarization.
“It’s the ideological sorting over time of the two parties, so that both parties now, compared to the past, are relatively more ideologically coherent and certainly more ideologically distinct from the other party than they used to be,” he said.
Often in the primaries, one or more candidates claim to defend the party’s ideological creed and fight against those who make too many deals with the other side. There are also one or more candidates who claim the party’s shared ideology, but make arguments about electability in the general election.
Today, however, because of party polarization, the argument of electability has diminished. Voters have a hardened antipathy toward the opposite party and will vote along party lines no matter the candidate.
“No matter who the party nominates, whether they’re more extreme, or old, or whacky, or whatever, they’re going to be entering into a general election [with their party’s voters’ support],” Rosenfeld said.
Rosenfeld analyzed the Democratic side.
“No one predicted the strength and depth of Sanders’ support,” he said.
In Iowa, 84 percent of voters under the age 30 supported Sanders. However, among older demographics, Clinton gained votes while Sanders lost them compared with the younger age groups.
On the Republican side, Ted Cruz fills the mold of strict Republican conservatism, while other candidates share these characteristics, but vary in one way or another. Donald Trump, however, is an outlier.
Rosenfeld spoke about Trump’s success with Republican voters.
“It’s not anti-statism,” Rosenfeld said. “It’s all speaking to the nationalist, ethnic, and racial anxieties of voters.”
In concluding remarks, Schatz and Rosenfeld both agreed that this primary season was one of political disruption and change.
“Time of war, political conflict, and economic stress is a time when the primaries have proven functional for political transformation to take place, and I think that has happened again now,” Schatz said.