History of Modern Day Democratic Presidential Nominations

What could easily be an entire survey course (and should be), was conducted in about 18 minutes (I don’t think Rhodes Cook – who delivered this session – took a breath the whole time!)

The speaker, Rhodes Cook – has written for the Congressional Quarterly for a very long time and, as you’ll see on his site, also wrote about the Presidential nominating process.

Ordinarily, I’d put highlights at the top, but in this particular blog, I’ll pretend that it’s like you’re sharing my course notes and let you read all of the way through to the end before I include highlights:

In the past, typically Rhodes is in the audience reporting on the news.  He was excited to be at the front speaking in front of the commission.

Overall, he was doing a retrospective on 1979-2008.  However, he went all the way back to the founding fathers. 

Looking back, there were several eras that flowed from all party elites to becoming increasingly democratic.  Here’s the overall history:

  • Founding fathers were the original superdelegates.  They held congressional caucuses with the Congress people and they simply went off into a corner and nominated a candidate.  With westward expansion, conventions replaced the caucus in 1830 – and then Jackson was the first convention candidate. For the next 150 years it was that model
  • From there we have had a movement for more direct presidential nominations.  In 1912 (Titanic year, he pointed out), Presidential nomination was a mess (Taft, Roosevelt & Wilson) but conventions were still became where delegates were chosen. 
  • Heading into 1968 there were only 15 primaries – and the primaries were defined by the primaries btw Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy (although Humphrey got the vp nomination in Chicago after not having done any primary involvement)  From that bloodletting in Chicago, ther ewas a major reform in the process. 
  • The 1970s were a decade for dark horses: McGovern (who wrote the new McGovern-Frasier rules) & Carter chief among them.  From 1968-1972, the number of primaries doubled because of the new rules and McGovern leveraged that because he focused on early states (AZ, IA & NH).  therefore – he performed better than expected.  Back then, the primary system was backloaded to May & June and were winner take all.  The early ones were stepping stones for candidates to win one at a time.  The Dark Horse could get momentum.  McGovern had more psasionat supporters & surprisingly even won southern states in delegates.  Then – he won CA (winner take all at the time).  In 1972, there was a challenge at the convetion but they still won the vote.  Carter was not propelled by a fervor, but was the 1st post watergate election (I will not lie).  He focused primarily on early states  -again – to get the momentum.
  • 1976 – it was the last year for late starting candidates (but they ran into the fact that if you had a lead in the delegates early on, because of proportional distribution, you have an insurmountable lead.
  • 80s changed the process – superdelegates were supposed to counteract the 70s and act as adult supervision to what had become “amateur hour”.  They saw the rise of the regional primaries (super tuesday in the southern states was designed to propel someone from the south but it didn’t work)
  • Up to 2008, earlyu ends to the nomination hvae been a feature.
  • 1992 – Clinton won by April – winning a lot on super tuesday in march
  • 1996 – not a democratic contest.
  • 2000 – Look at the calendar.  There was a win for Gore, but the issue is that the stage went dark for a month – while George Bush kept the spotlight.  Some say that he never recovered from that. 
  • 2004 – John Kerry – won from the get go (IA, NH) and really started further raising question of influence of IA & NH (more on that in a later post).
  • In response to the IA & NH influence, the DNC allowed 2 other states to get at the front of the pack: NV (as a caucus) and SC (as a primary).  Of course, IA & NH didn’t like that – so moved their events earlier.  Plus MI and FL wanted early events too and moved theirs before the official opening.  Net net  – there was an incredible frontloading of the primaries (including the plethora of primaries/events on opening day – Feb 5).

Cook went on to say that “now we’re trying ot put the genie back in the bottle”


Superdelegates have only been a big factor in 1984 with Mondale at which time they were, essentially, the 1st primary (not all elected officials were superdelegates – and they represented only 14% of the total delegates).  They made their decision before IA and NH and, in 1984, gave Mondale an insurmountable lead in delegates, even though Gary Hart started to produce better primary results later on.

In 2008 – superdelegate numbers increased to 20% because there’s been “superdelegate creep” (suzi’s term, not Rhodes Cook).  Initially, not all members of congress, DNC, etc.. were included.  in 2008 they were.  (more on superdelegates in a different post)

Regarding caucuses – in the past caucuses were not debated so heavily.  Many reformers thought caucuses were better – as they would reward party activits and would not be overwhelmed by more casual delegates.  Caucuses have been a backwater and a place of passion.

Rhodes finished by congratulating us on driving to make change even when we won.  Typically change is a “losers lament”.

In the Q&A:

Q: thoughts on regional primaries?

A: Tried in 1996 in an ad hoc grouping.  Dismantled cause of lack of opposition but worth revisiting

Q: Internet voting comment?

A: no real comment other than pointing out that AZ ran a primary online in the past and that there was a question of the digital divide

Q: Key issues/challenges?

A: states not wanting to move


One response to “History of Modern Day Democratic Presidential Nominations

  1. Pingback: The Change Commission’s first meeting « Suzi's Political & Educational Observations and Experiences

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