In the United Kingdom, when the prime minister calls an election, it can take as little as one month to complete. In France, the national election campaign takes all of four months. Yet, the American presidential election process starts in January and ends in November, 10 months later. The major reason it takes you so long to be able to cast your vote in November is the complex American primary system.
The Way It Was
The very first presidential election in 1789 was fast and smooth -- electors voted in January and George Washington took office in April. For most of the 19th century, candidates were chosen by caucuses consisting of influential members of Congress, and party movers and shakers. If several candidates were at odds within a party -- as in 1860, when William Seward, Salmon B. Chase and Edward Bates were political rivals to Abraham Lincoln -- everything was worked out at national political party conventions where back room deals generally decided who would become the nominee. At that point, the campaign -- with candidates refraining from stumping themselves, but merely making statements or sending out surrogates -- would take place in September and October before elections in November.
The First Primaries
In the early 20th century, this process began to appear anti-democratic as more and more voters wanted a say in who became their candidate. Thus state primaries were instituted. These were at first pro forma procedures in which party delegates simply rubber-stamped the choices of their political bosses. Even when actual citizens began to vote for a candidate, these primaries were nonbinding, although they could be influential. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt cemented his third party candidacy for president by beating the Republican incumbent William Howard Taft in nine state primaries.
The Long Season
Primaries grew in popularity after 1960s, lengthening the traditional campaigning season of Labor Day to Election Day. In 2012, each party held 51 primaries. The first primary (actually a smaller caucus) was in Iowa in January; others were spread throughout the spring of election year. One reason the election process has gotten longer is that states now vie with each other to move their primaries earlier in the season to get more influence, television visibility and economic revenue.
Unlikely To Change
Candidates who want their party’s presidential nomination must conduct an exhausting campaign that includes running in the most important of the state primaries. There have been calls for this system to be abolished. One suggestion is that parties return to holding only a few spring primaries, followed by national conventions. Another proposal is to divide the country into different geographic regions, where a shortened season of primaries would be held in rotating order. But each state now has a vested interest in keeping its own primary and having a say in the American election process, so this time-consuming system for picking presidents is likely to continue.
- Philly.com: Britain's Election: Quiet, Quick and Cheap
- NPR.org: How France's Presidential Contest Compares To The U.S.
- NPR.org: Books: Doris Kearns Goodwin on Lincoln and His "Team of Rivals"
- Miller Center.org: American President: A Reference Resource: Campaign of 1912
- American Thinker: The Case Against Presidential Primaries
- CNN.com: Political Ticker: Senators Seek Reform Of Presidential Primary System
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