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Teddy Roosevelt and the election that gave rise to the presidential primary system


January 15. 2016 9:07PM

"Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary" by Geoffrey Cowan (W.W. Norton & Company, 424 pages, $27.95 hardcover) 
Author: NH primary gives underdogs a shot
Author Geoffrey Cowan says the presidential primary system, while flawed, remains a viable way of choosing presidential nominees.

While he thinks a regional, rotating primary system might make sense, he told the Sunday News that Iowa and New Hampshire continue to provide underdog candidates with a chance they would otherwise not get.

He said he is not crazy about so-called “super delegates,” and he believes that the system “should be more comprehensible” to the public. National committees, not states, still control the rules and change them seemingly at random.

He noted that this year, Republican primaries award delegates on a proportional basis only through March 15. Thereafter, it is still “winner take all.” It also takes more states to put a name in nomination, which makes “favorite son” candidates less likely.

Cowan is former dean of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. He is now president of the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

He credits New Hampshire's Portsmouth Athenaeum for valuable assistance in researching his new book, “Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary.”

Cowan will be at the Athenaeum to speak and sign copies of his book on Sunday, Feb. 7. The event will commence at 3 p.m. in the Reading Room.

— Joe McQuaid

If Teddy Roosevelt had seen a different way in which to wrest the 1912 Republican presidential nomination from the incumbent, William Howard Taft, we might not be celebrating the centennial of New Hampshire's First in the Nation Primary just yet.

That's one conclusion to be drawn from Geoffrey Cowan's fascinating and readable new book, “Let the People Rule. Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary.” (W.W. Norton & Company. $27.95 hardcover).

Another conclusion, which pains Cowan to suggest, is that Roosevelt was less principled than Taft. The two had been great friends and colleagues, and their political and personal rift was never truly healed. Cowan also shows how Roosevelt's ambitions to retake the White House led to his wooing Southern white voters at the expense of blacks.

Cowan is no stranger to the primary system. His work on the Hughes Commission at the 1968 Democratic National Convention (he was a young Eugene McCarthy campaigner that year) would lead to party rule changes in 1972 to make the process more reflective of popular sentiment. That effort made it less likely that a candidate could gain the nomination without competing in primaries. It also piqued Cowan's curiosity as to how the primary system came about. Years later, it would lead to this book.

It was not Roosevelt but backers of populist Sen. Robert La Follete of Wisconsin who initially pushed for primaries to take the place of the then-existing system in which party bosses and stalwarts controlled the presidential nomination process through state party conventions and caucuses. Primaries, at first for state office, were the new thing at the turn of the 20th century.

La Follette and his followers saw them as fitting for the presidential nomination as well. Roosevelt thought otherwise, initially. His backers on the Republican National Committee, as well as Taft's, rejected a pro-primary proposal. The RNC said that presidential primaries would be held only in those states that had created state primary laws and even then, state political committees had the option of chosing delegates via a primary.

From almost the moment he made it, Roosevelt had regretted his election-night 1904 pledge not to seek reelection in 1908. While he heartily endorsed Taft, who had been his Secretary of War, as his successor, he chafed at some of Taft's decisions. It may surprise some readers to learn that Roosevelt “had become much more sympathetic to business and that TR was alarmed by Taft's overly aggressive antitrust work,” writes Cowan, paraphrasing one of Roosevelt's operatives.

On the other hand, Cowan notes that longtime Roosevelt allies such as Elihu Root and U.S. Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge were aghast when Roosevelt said that letting “the people rule” extended to allowing voters to overturn court rulings.

Roosevelt was clearly trying to have it both ways. Cowan's recounting of the two candidates competing in several primaries is a great read. The two drew huge crowds.

Roosevelt won more primaries but contested slates of delegates emerged from many states, some from primaries, some from state conventions. It all led to the drama of the 1912 Republican convention in Chicago. There, Roosevelt's forces, knowing Taft controlled the crucial committees, walked out and down the street and announced the formation of a third-party bid.

It was in the subsequent “Bull Moose” convention that Roosevelt's move to seat all-white delegations from key southern states left many blacks, along with some of his progressive allies, dismayed and disenchanted with “TR.”

The late William Loeb, longtime president and publisher of the New Hampshire Sunday News and Union Leader, often said that his father (TR's White House secretary) had advised Roosevelt not to run in 1912 but wait until 1916. Others, however, urged the former Rough Rider to mount his 1912 challenge.

Included in the latter camp was Loeb's predecessor as Union Leader publisher, Col. Frank Knox. Cowan notes how TR and Knox worked to arrange a supposedly spontaneous “draft” in which Knox had several progressive governors write letters supporting Roosevelt's candidacy. Included was New Hampshire Gov. Robert Bass (father and grandfather to Perkins and Charlie Bass, respectively). Bass' effort to have New Hampshire adopt a presidential primary law that year failed, but the perceived unfair way Roosevelt was treated in 1912 helped pave the way for New Hampshire's law in 1916.

Roosevelt's third-party candidacy finished ahead of Taft in the 1912 general election. But the party split paved the way for Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the White House. One wonders if history might repeat itself in 2016.

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