Our Presidential Primary System Is An Accident

It’s going to be hard to avoid coverage of the Democratic primary in the coming months. It’ll be portrayed as a grand exercise in democracy, a way for voters to express their opinions about the future of a party, and potentially the nation. But unlike the general election, presidential primaries are not laid out in the Constitution. Instead, they’re the product of happenstance and reactionary decision-making, most notably in response to a single disastrous nominating convention in 1968. Modern presidential campaigns wouldn’t be the same without that convention, and neither would the country.

For the past few months, the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast has been reporting on exactly how our modern primary system came to be, and what effect it has had on recent American history. Over the next few weeks, in an audio documentary series we’re calling the Primaries Project, we’ll tackle three key questions: 1) how we got the system we have today, 2) what its consequences are and 3) how things could be different.

Today, we’re releasing the first episode, answering the first of those questions:

Prior to the 1970s, presidential nominees were chosen by the party establishment, with little input from rank-and-file voters. The parties generally used caucuses, where party insiders would select delegates to eventually go to the national convention. The delegates were usually well-known people within the parties, not required to vote for any one candidate and often chosen before candidates even entered the race. At the national convention, delegates would wheel and deal and eventually land on a nominee.

That all changed after the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where the Democratic Party fractured dramatically over support for the war in Vietnam. To hear the story of how those events led to the creation of our modern primary system, click play above or subscribe to the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast. Check back throughout the month of January as we investigate the consequences of the modern system and how it could be different.

You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button in the audio player above or by downloading it in iTunes, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.

The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast publishes Mondays and Thursdays. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on iTunes. Have a comment, question or suggestion? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.


How a raucous convention revolutionized our primary system