Library of Congress


The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Presentations and Activities > Elections

Electoral Votes    Primaries Then    Primaries Now

Primary Votes Then

I can picture ... the great Democratic convention of 1894 at the old coliseum in Omaha... right now I can hear the Hallelluiahs of the assembled. Oh how I wish I had back the youth and the enthusiasm I felt that night, I jumped on a chair and ask[ed] that by a rising vote the nomination be made unanimous, how the people yelled, how the packed gallories applauded, it cheers an old man now to think about it.

Mrs. J.J.McCarthy'senthusiasm for party conventions wasn't shared by all of his contemporaries. Even before 1900, many sought to reform these conventions that uniformly ignored the will of individual voters in their selection of presidential candidates. Though these conventions were attended by delegates sent from their respective states, delegates were often chosen by state and party bosses with sway over the delegates' loyalties, instead of by state-wide or majority elections, called primaries. Before the 1920s, party bosses were often accused of trading convention floor votes for power, patronage, or even cash! These problems kept the representational method of nominating candidates by sending delegates to conventions from being truly representational.

In the first decade of the 1900s, states began to hold primary elections to select the delegates that would attend national nominating conventions. The introduction of these primary elections mitigated the corrupt control of party and state bosses. But the widespread adoption of primary elections was not immediate and so they did not play the role of virtually determining a party's candidate as they do today. 1912 was the first year in which a presidential candidate, two-time President Theodore Roosevelt, tried to secure his nomination through primary elections. That year, nine states elected delegates that supported Roosevelt, while incumbent, William Howard Taft, won only one primary election. Despite Roosevelt's wholesale victory of the popular vote, Taft received the Republican nomination. This was because only 42% of the delegates who attended the nominating convention had been selected through primary elections. The rest had been selected by party bosses who supported Taft and succeeded in granting him their party's nomination.

Failing to win the Republican nomination, Roosevelt and his supporters formed the Progressive Party, or Bull Moose Party, with Roosevelt as its presidential candidate. Roosevelt failed to win the Presidency that year, but with the help of the Progressive party, our country's primary system began to change. Fed up with corrupt party politics, Americans demanded and won reforms that reduced the power of party bosses. The introduction of the secret ballot had led the way in 1888. By the 1920's, almost every state had loosened the grip of political bosses and placed candidate selection more firmly in the hands of citizen voters.

The excitement and corruption of party politics was not limited to the national arenas and big party players. E. R. Kaiser paints a picture of local party politics in the late 1800s:

Politics played a big part in the life of this town years ago. Campaigns were hot, and there was always a big celebration afterwards. ... Votes used to be bought -- that is before the secret ballot was adopted. Some sold 'em pretty cheap. I remember one old fellow who sold out to one party for a dollar -- then sold out to the other for the same price.

previous page