Caucuses and primaries and polls, oh my

And they’re off! With yesterday’s Iowa caucuses ushering in the “hot” phase of constant campaigning leading up to the Republican Convention this summer, we may well look with a touch of nostalgia at earlier times when the political circus wasn’t quite so all-pervasive, albeit less open and transparent.

Certainly Calvin Coolidge never had to face a presidential primary. In his day, there may have been some genteel campaigning and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, but the real dealmaking and vote-counting (not to mention vote buying) took place during the national convention, where party bigwigs wheeled and dealed to determine the makeup of the national ticket. If primaries were held at all, such as in the contested 1912 race, when Teddy Roosevelt challenged incumbent president William Howard Taft for the nomination, they were generally non-binding – Taft would have sunk like a stone if the primaries had been binding, but he controlled the convention and was nominated, prompting the Bull Moose Party split from the GOP.

Broader use and acceptance of the primary system only came in the wake of the chaotic 1968 Democratic campaign and convention, bringing more transparency to the nominating process, but also a prolonged political battle. Criticism of the primary system has focused on the non-representativeness of early caucus and primary battlefields, and on the front-loading effect that ensures that the nomination is all but decided before many people in many states have had a chance to influence the selection process. While some proposals have been floated, such as a national primary, they are not without their own flaws, and it’s likely we will be stuck with the present nomination process for the time being.

For Coolidge fans, it’s fun to speculate how well their man would have done if exposed to the selection process as practiced today. In my view, it’s difficult to say – while he did prove adept at “retail politics” on the local and state level, he was obviously not a back-slapping gladhander, and with a national campaign, he probably would have done well to rely on radio, the one medium that allowed him to shine. Apart from that, a lot would have depended on his organization.

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