Primaries were created to kill brokered nominating conventions and the political machines that controlled politics in the late 1800s and into the 1900s. It was “power to the people” and “people count” long before they became chants in today’s rhetoric.
The basic assumption of primaries was that the voters were wise enough to choose their party’s candidates. It is still regarded as a theory because it continues unproven and may well be destroyed in 2016.
North Dakota tested that assumption six times. We had presidential primaries in six presidential years – 1912, 1916, 1920, 1924, 1928 and 1932 – and never demonstrated “power to the people” during this trial period.
In 1912, Bob LaFollette won the North Dakota primary but W. H. Taft got the nomination; in 1916, LaFollette won the primary but Charley Hughes got the nomination; in 1920, Hiram Johnson won the primary but Warren Harding got the nomination.
In 1924, Calvin Coolidge won the primary and did get the nomination; in 1928, Frank Lowden was the only Republican candidate to show up in North Dakota and Herbert Hoover got the nomination; in 1932, Joseph France won the primary and Hoover was renominated.
In six Republican primaries, North Dakota voted for the winning candidate only once. With this sad record, we abandoned the primary business for several reasons.
First, the lack of impact on presidential nominations was embarrassing. Of course, there were fewer primaries nationally in those days so most nominations were still being negotiated in smoke-filled rooms.
Second, the Great Depression was in full swing in the early ‘30s. State policymakers slashed budgets left and right to bring the cost of government down to disposable income. The anemic presidential primary was an expendable fringe program for state and local governments.
In the 1932 elections, people voted to cut the salaries and travel allowances of county, state elected and judicial officials. One ballot measure reduced the assessed valuation of property from 75 percent to 50 percent. (It wasn’t on the ballot but the Red River voluntarily dried up in Fargo.)
Without state-sponsored primaries, parties were left to their own resources to get grass roots preferences for presidential candidates.
At the present time, North Dakota Republicans are using a committee to nominate a slate of delegates to be ratified by the state convention. The Democrats use a system of proportional allocation that requires a remedial course in math to understand.
To guide his choice of a candidate, Congressman Kevin Cramer conducted an online straw survey. Responding to the survey, 4,740 participants gave Donald Trump 1,785, or 38 percent. Senator Ted Cruz ran second with 1,220, or 26 percent.
In the 2012 presidential election, the Republican candidate got 188,000 votes. After making adjustments for independents and straying Democrats, the figure suggests that a minimum of 100,000 voters are regular Republicans.
To keep Cramer’s survey in perspective, Trump’s 1,785 votes could hardly be called a mandate when measured against the real Republican electorate of 100,000 or more.
With such a small number of survey participants, it would take just a little manipulating or ballot box stuffing to taint the tally. Even “online” would bias results. So the survey provides no worthwhile guidance for supporting any of the presidential candidates.
Now back at square one, we could propose bringing the presidential primary back but it would not be timely. We are now in the same budget-slashing mode that eliminated the primary 88 years ago.