Primary Votes Now
Examine these convention pictures that range from 1904 to 1960. The face of political conventions doesn't seem to have changed much in five decades. Even at today's conventions, you'd see crowds of delegates, banners, and signs. It may look the same, but over the last 150 years the American primary process has been dramatically transformed.
Because the Constitution gives no guidance for nominating presidential candidates, Americans continue to tinker with the primary process. Reforms led to party rules for choosing candidates and delegates. The Democratic party has established national rules for how candidates are selected. The Republican party allows each state to set its own guidelines for candidate selection. Other parties, such as the Reform party, have a less structured candidate selection process.
The advent of early primaries in New Hampshire, early caucuses in Iowa, and the Super-Tuesday block of state primaries is relatively new to the election scene. As primaries were universally adopted as the method for selecting delegates, they became a more consequential part of the election process. Early primaries have taken on added importance as setting precedence and influencing the elections that follow in other states. Today, state legislatures capitalize on the importance of primaries and jockey for influence by scheduling their states' primaries and caucuses as early as possible, forcing presidential candidates to cater to their states.
Unlike the heated back-room nominations of the past, there are few surprises at today's national party conventions. Today, in 48 states, individuals participate in primaries or caucuses to elect delegates who support their presidential candidate of choice. At national party conventions, the presidential contender with the most state delegate votes wins the party nomination. Our far-reaching American news media ensures that state delegate vote counts (and the apparent nominees) are well known before national conventions begin. As a result, modern national conventions don't select candidates. Instead, they launch nominees and election themes that carry through the race to the White House.
President Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Committee convention on August 29, 1996 was entitled "Join Me to Build that Bridge to the Future," a theme that was played constantly for the next few months.
The perceived need for reform of the primary process continues today. Many feel that the influence of early primaries disturbs the balance of power exerted by the states upon the nomination of candidates, and thus the selection of the President. Proponents of campaign finance reform feel that the large sums of money required to run a political race deter many from seeking office. Indeed, the increased importance of primary elections and the increased media coverage of the race for the Presidency have added to the challenges facing a candidate. Prospective presidential candidates generally pay registration fees, collect a set number of voter signatures, and affiliate with a political party to qualify for state ballots or caucuses. That deceptively simple process is followed by the more onerous job of amassing a war-chest of campaign funds, then winning the hearts of voters in grueling and costly state races and in the general election.
Americans will continue to grapple with the primary and the electoral system. The beauty of our democracy is that citizens have the power to change the election process in the years to come.