Although no one has commissioned an HBO docudrama, written a hot best-seller or even planned a national series of academic conferences, America is about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of an event that transformed politics and directly led to the outsider presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. I am, of course, referring to the creation of the modern presidential primary system.
Fifty years ago this month, Bobby Kennedy was scrapping for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination in a handful of primary fights against a flagging Eugene McCarthy, the original antiwar hero, whose acerbic and cerebral style seemed no match for the Kennedy charisma machine.
But RFK’s real opponent—Vice President Hubert Humphrey—refused to compete in the four spring primaries (Indiana, Nebraska, Oregon and California). Humphrey, who was only running because McCarthy had driven Lyndon Johnson from the race, placed his faith in a higher power—party bosses and organized labor.
It was a shrewd strategy, even if it was born out of necessity. As a top Democrat told the Christian Science Monitor before the June 4 California primary, “For every front-page story telling how Kennedy had lost another pair of cuff links to an adoring mob, there is a story buried on Page 8 telling how Humphrey has just sewed up the delegates from another non-primary state.”
It was no exaggeration—the 1968 nomination fight was a rigged game.
On May 28, for example, the Pennsylvania delegation caucused and awarded 88 votes to Humphrey, 22 votes to McCarthy (who had won a non-binding March primary) and exactly zero to Kennedy. The machine-politics result was orchestrated by two pro-Humphrey mayors, Philadelphia’s James Tate and Joseph Barr in Pittsburgh. A dejected Kennedy backer rightly called it, “A Pennsylvania railroad.”
But that was how the game was played a half-century ago. As Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution, a long-time member of Democratic Party’s rules committee, points out in her invaluable Primary Politics, only nine states held presidential primaries in 1968—and six of them were meaningless beauty contests like Pennsylvania’s. Even more devastating for democracy was that one-quarter of all delegates to the 1968 Democratic Convention were selected in 1967 before anyone imagined that the “Clean for Gene” brigades could topple LBJ.
The truth is that—even if he had not been assassinated after winning the June 4 California primary—Kennedy probably would have lost the nomination to Humphrey. On the eve of the California vote, the vice president’s team estimated that they were close to the 1,312 votes needed for nomination. The key, according to the New York Times, was 664 Humphrey votes from 14 southern and border States, which had all picked their delegates in insiders-only caucuses.
Any system this undemocratic was doomed amid the turbulent passions surrounding the Vietnam War. The reign of party bosses died somewhere between the tear-stained anguish of Kennedy’s assassination and the tear-gassed anguish of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
On the second day of the convention—as liberals recoiled over what Connecticut Sen. Abraham Ribicoff called “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago”—the party regulars offered what seemed a small concession to the antiwar activists. They promised a post-election reform commission to examine the rules for nominating future presidents.
The resulting commission (known as the McGovern-Frazier Commission) sparked two massive changes in the nominating system—a dramatic expansion in binding primaries and an end to closed-door caucuses. Political scientist Byron Shafer in Quiet Revolution, his definitive study of the McGovern-Frazier Commission, says that the reforms caused “the diminution, the constriction, at times the elimination, of the regular party in the politics of presidential selection.”
The results of the McGovern-Frazier Commission were dramatic and immediate. In 1972, the Democrats nominated antiwar crusader George McGovern (the co-chairman of the commission) despite the fierce opposition of AFL-CIO president George Meany, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and most of the party establishment. Four years later, the Democrats nominated and America elected a true outsider—Jimmy Carter, a one-term former governor of Georgia who promised the nation “a government as good as its people.”
Before 1968, political bosses in both parties privately assessed the suitability of would-be presidents as they made their choices at old-fashioned brokered conventions. In 1952, for example, the Democrats refused to take the candidacy of Estes Kefauver seriously, even though the Tennessee senator had swept a series of meaningless primaries. The reason: Insiders knew that Kefauver was a skirt-chasing alcoholic.
As party leaders lost their sway to the verdict of the primaries, the media (sometimes with a heavy-handed lack of discrimination) took on the necessary task of vetting would-be presidents. In 1987, the candidacies of both Joe Biden (plagiarism) and Gary Hart (sailing to Bimini on a boat called Monkey Business with a woman who wasn’t his wife) were destroyed by scandal. In 1992, Bill Clinton survived both adultery charges (Gennifer Flowers) and a furor over how he avoided the Vietnam draft while a Rhodes Scholar.
But now we are in an era when party bosses are extinct, the news media is partly discredited, and no one vets presidential nominees other than primary voters. This unchecked voter sovereignty has had its successes (Obama) and its dangerous-for-democracy misfires (Trump).
In 2016, the Republican establishment had no mechanism to halt the Trump takeover as the former reality-show host swept through the primaries. The Democrats, at least, had an “in emergency break glass” system to thwart a demagogic presidential contender. Uncommitted superdelegates (members of Congress, governors and party officials) made up about 15 percent of the delegates in Philadelphia.
Now the Democrats—under pressure from Bernie Sanders purists—are poised in 2020 to either curtail or eliminate completely the independent voting powers of superdelegates. Thus, in a half-century America has gone from the unchecked power of party bosses to the unchecked power of sometimes ill-informed voters.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.