Primaries are what keep the GOP out of the White House

October 28, 2015
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Carson gestures towards Trump during the second official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson gestures towards Donald Trump (R) during the second official GOP debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, September 16, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

The rise of such non-traditional Republican presidential hopefuls as Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina — all non-politicians — has many political pundits insisting the 2016 election is unique. But the truth is exactly the opposite: The GOP is on a well-worn path, followed since King Primary replaced King Convention as the preferred method for selecting presidential nominees.

Republican voters, as opposed to party power-brokers, began effectively picking the party’s presidential nominee in 1964. Conservative populist Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona upset the establishment favorite, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, in the defining California primary. Since then, GOP presidential-primary outcomes fall into three distinct and fascinating results

1) Every sitting Republican president eligible to seek another term won re-nomination: Richard M. Nixon in 1972, Gerald Ford in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1984, George H.W. Bush in 1992 and George W. Bush in 2004.


President Ronald Reagan addressing a news conference in Washington D.C., October 19, 1983. REUTERS/Mal Langsdon

2) Every non-incumbent Republican primary winner who went on to win the general election would likely have been chosen by the party bosses anyway and so nominated by the old boss-controlled conventions. Nixon, the establishment choice, was a former vice president who faced little opposition in 1968. Reagan, a two-term California governor, was the overwhelming choice of Republicans across the nation in 1980. George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president, was his anointed successor in 1988. Twelve years later, his son, Texas Governor George W. Bush, the clear establishment choice, beat back a serious challenge from anti-establishment maverick Senator John McCain of Arizona.

3) Every Republican non-incumbent primary winner who then went on to lose the general election almost surely would not have survived a multi-ballot convention process, traditionally geared to find a consensus choice able to win the White House. Goldwater’s attacks on the “liberal Eastern Establishment” alienated key party leaders and crucial state delegations. Former Senator Bob Dole, the 1996 GOP nominee, previously lost as the vice-presidential nominee in 1976 and made failed presidential runs in 1980 and 1988. GOP leaders had never backed a three-time loser. Party bosses also had scant interest in supporting McCain in 2008, or former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in 2012. They both won the primaries largely by default, when more credible challengers declined to enter the GOP primary demolition derby. At a boss-run national convention, neither man would likely have been the final choice.

Those who killed the convention process and installed primary contests as the decider claimed the new format would ensure that the “will” of the people could prevail. But history has proven them wrong.


The 1896 Republican National Convention, which nominated William McKinley of Ohio as president. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The Democratic Party’s connection to the defeated Confederacy, which had seceded from a Republican-led United States, made it a certain national loser until the Depression of 1873. But party bosses regrouped.

By 1876, GOP leaders realized they could no longer take winning for granted. They gathered at their national convention every four years to strategize about the best possible candidate. Given Ohio’s pivotal role in Electoral College math, they first looked to find a viable conservative presidential candidate from the Buckeye State. The formula produced five successful Republican non-incumbent winners: Rutherford Hayes in 1876; James Garfield in 1880; William McKinley in 1896; William Howard Taft in 1908 and Warren G. Harding in 1920. Another GOP non-incumbent winner, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, hailed from neighboring Indiana.

But the Great Depression transformed American politics. Democratic non-incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt won the presidency in 1932 and held it for four terms. Democrats effectively held the White House through 1968, except for retired General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s two terms, from 1953 through 1961.

About the time the primary process superseded the power of conventions, Roosevelt’s fabled New Deal coalition began to collapse. This gave the GOP a chance for a re-set.


Senator Mark Hanna, the Ohio power broker who helped secure the presidency for his friend William McKinley. Wikipedia/Commons

But primaries have proven a curse, not a cure, for Republican woes. The people’s choices who were nominated over party bosses’ objections invariably lost. When the bosses and primary voters agreed, however, those candidates won. The Republican National Committee has tinkered regularly with the primary rules. But this avoids confronting the basic problem: The primary process has undercut the GOP in its search for a winning presidential candidate.

Yet primaries have worked great for Democrats. This is the opposite of what top political scientists had predicted. They had expected that the party’s left wing would highjack the primary process and nominate unelectable liberals. Instead, moderates kept winning. Primaries gave the Democrats former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter in 1976, former Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton in 1992 and Senator Barack Obama in 2008. All three would have been unlikely to have been nominated at a Democratic National Convention.

Consider, no politician from the Deep South had been the presidential nominee since long before the Civil War. Clinton’s Gennifer Flowers scandal, which emerged during the New Hampshire primary, would have scared off party bosses from the untested governor. As for Obama, party bosses might have considered him unelectable once they viewed Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s videos. But Democratic Party voters proved better than the bosses when it came to picking winners.

Now comes the 2016 cycle. In days past, party bosses, concerned about the polling numbers of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the predicted front-runner, would likely have already anointed popular Ohio Governor John Kasich and told him to stay quiet, raise money and stop talking about Social Security, for gosh sakes. They would likely have chosen New Mexico’s Republican Governor Susana Martinez for vice president, although Florida Senator Marco Rubio might get the nod instead.

Republican U.S. presidential candidates Cruz, Trump and Carson talk during a break in the the second official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley

Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Senator Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Ben Carson talk during a commercial break in the second official GOP debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, September 16, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

As the bosses would know, these tickets could carry the Buckeye State, the Sunshine State and the 24 others won by Romney in 2012. This would give Republicans a 253 electoral vote base, 17 shy of the majority needed to take back the White House. It would still be uphill, though, given the Democrat’s Electoral College advantage.

But under the primary system, Kasich’s candidacy has barely a pulse, and Martinez is rarely mentioned for vice president. Primary voters want Trump or Carson, with Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex,) gaining as the choice of “real” conservatives. Party bosses running the convention would have written all three off long ago as certain losers.

So primaries may again create serious problems for the GOP. The party’s presidential candidates have lost the popular vote five out of the last six times. The GOP’s best showing has been 286 electoral votes, barely more than the 270 needed for a majority. But this includes three formerly Republican-leaning Rocky Mountain states — Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada — twice carried handily by Obama.

Trump, Carson and Cruz are all unlikely to be elected president in 2016. They would be lucky to win all the Romney states: They probably cannot win the four, possibly five, Obama states needed to reach the Oval Office. The party bosses who controlled the conventions would have known that.

Primary voters do not.


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No. 3 trillion taxpayer dollars. 4,000 U.S. service lives. To give ISIS a new home in IRAQ.

THAT. That incompetence and arrogance and basic short-sighted stupidity…. is why republicans will not seat a president for 30 more years. They can’t run a country.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

So why do primaries work better for the Democrats than for the Republicans? Are democratic primary voters more politically astute or just more representative of the general electorate?

Posted by Sewblon | Report as abusive

Here in lies the problem with aligning ones party with segments of the population who lack rational thought and instead view the world in a mystical way. Fundamentalists religions do not represent the majority of people but are a very important component of the GOP. The southern democrats are another minority who are key to the GOP, but who espouse a minority view (that view being that fiefdoms are a good thing).

Sewblon: the democratic constituents are easily cowed. They are all TV addicts who see Oprah and others as the true leaders.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

@Sewblon: Yes, the Democratic electorate is more educated on the whole. A little less paranoid and less reliant on AM radio for information. Here’s a recent study: ublicans-really-are-dumber-than-democrat s-2012-5

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

The main reason dumocrats do better in debates is because the candidates never are asked to defend their records and the moderators questions lead them right into subjects they would like to discuss. In other words the democratic candidates are “in bed” with the media.

On the other hand last nights media political assassination attempt on the GOP candidates was one the most biased performances I have ever seen by the totally incompetent MSNBC moderators.

As far as the intellect of Republicans I can only say they were not stupid enough to elect an incompetent phony like Obama or have a lying crooked candidate like Hillary leading their ticket.

Posted by fedupaj | Report as abusive

fedupaj: That is a bit nonsensical. Defending their record is easy. It is only the paranoid of the right who see Benghazi and e-mails as major issues because the right wing media machine has rolled out what they should be outraged about. But, rationally one can see that these are minor/created issues not of substance.

Solidar: Democrats may on average be more intelligent, much like a toad is likely of higher intelligence than a snail. It’s nothing to brag about and anyway they are almost as likely to be making decisions based on the simplistic arguments of some media dolt as the GOPers are.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Umm…sorry by George H. W. Bush was not reelected. He was defeated by Bill Clinton. More sloppy journalism.

Posted by JackJC | Report as abusive

Brotherkenny4, I’m with you on that. America has some of the dumbest voters in the world. Half the country thinks global warming warming is some kind of UN conspiracy. But have no problem with the idea that Noah lured polar bears into Syria for his arc. There are tens of millions of people in America believing this stuff literally happened.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

From 1992- 2012
13 states (with 102 electoral votes) voted Republican every time
19 states (with 242) voted Democratic every time

If this pattern continues, and the National Popular Vote bill does not go into effect,
Democrats only would need a mere 28 electoral votes from other states.
If Republicans lose Florida (29), they would lose.

Population shifts have converted states that were once solidly Republican into closely divided “battleground” states.

There do not appear to be any Democratic states making the transition to voting Republican in presidential races.

Posted by kohler | Report as abusive

I think the difference we’re looking for, is that democratic party bosses still exert control over the behavior of the party, even if not on all of the party candidates/electorate.

However, roughly 20 years ago, the nascent right-wing news’ “talking heads” burst onto the scene and steadily amassed talking points/air time (and by extension, were able to control the party’s talking points and what topics were relevant to the party platform). This wouldn’t be an issue per se, if those talking points were either aligned with the average republican (populist) or the party bosses (establishment), but they’re not close to either.

Rather, right wing media serve a similar function to what you see with the old Billy Mays’ commercials during a documentary on a major news channel- you’re in the thick of discussion on how XYZ is affecting the crime rates in major cities and then… BAM!! “HI I’M BILLY MAYS HERE TO TALK ABOUT OXYCLEAN…” and suddenly, your attention is away from the documentary and the topic in your mind is whether to buy the oxyclean or not, rather than whether there is relevance of the crime segment on your life.

Ultimately, the Republican constituency is going to see the snake (right wing pundits) eat the elephant (establishment), or see the elephant squash the snake. I have no idea which we’ll see and have no sympathy for this pox they have brought upon themselves sensationalizing things like the war on Christmas, Reaganism, etc etc etc.

Posted by OxymorontoMoron | Report as abusive

Completely stupid and inaccurate analysis. It used history to draw the exact wrong conclusion.

Posted by NovemberGold | Report as abusive