Progressive Era Reforms and the Birth of the Primaries, 1890-1960

During the Progressive era, which lasted from roughly 1890-1920, the people’s desire for reform in the political process led to the establishment of the primaries. A primary is a state election in which citizens of that state cast their vote for the candidate whom they want to represent their party in the general election.

With an eye to making the process of presidential nominations more democratic, progressive reform efforts focused initially on making the delegate and candidate selection processes more transparent and inclusive. One of the earliest efforts was made by Wisconsin Governor Robert La Follette who’s frustration with the backroom politics in the 1904 elections led him to draft legislation that allowed Wisconsin voters more say over convention delegate selection. Subsequent states followed suit, so that by 1916, twenty-five of the forty-eight states had presidential primaries and stricter rules binding delegates to popular election results.

After World War I, the appetite for reform in the political process decreased as the country entered a period of political conservatism. In fact, eight states actually abandoned their primaries in favor of the old tradition of only allowing delegates to cast votes for their party’s nominee. As the Progressive movement lost momentum in American politics, so too did the idea of the state primaries in the nominating process.

Following World War II, primaries made a resurgence. With the advent of television and radio, populist-minded candidates could get their message directly to the voters and circumnavigate the influences of party bosses. This meant that lesser known candidates stood a chance at prevailing in the state primaries over more senior candidates with greater clout among party insiders. Candidates like Adlai Stevenson used the media advantageously to connect with voters, win state primaries, and ultimately wrest the nomination from the party’s establishment at the 1952 Democratic Convention. This trend continued in the post-war era, and came to a head in 1960.