REVIEW: Theodore Roosevelt Deserves a Lot of the Credit--or Blame--for the Rise of Presidential Primaries

Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary by Geoffrey Cowan

W.W. Norton   424 pp.         $27.95

By Michael Bobelian

In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt, who was eager to return to the White House after a three-year hiatus, faced a quandary.  The charismatic, larger-than-life Roosevelt remained immensely popular within the Republican Party.  Thousands flocked to his speeches, reporters clung on his every word, and progressives championed his candidacy.  Yet the incumbent, TR’s hand-picked protégé, William Howard Taft, was intent on remaining President – and he controlled the party’s machinery at the nominating convention. 

Since 1832, the parties had selected their candidates through conventions, an undemocratic process governed by patronage, backroom deals, “favorite sons,” and compromise candidates.  But that was beginning to change, thanks to a newly created system of party primaries.  TR rooted his insurgent candidacy in this new system – and what he called “the right of the people to rule.”

In Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary, Geoffrey Cowan provides a riveting account of the birth of primaries during the 1912 GOP race.  Cowan, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, is ideally suited for the task: in 1968, the commission he organized ended the stranglehold maintained by party bosses over the Democratic convention.  In replacing them with delegates selected through primaries, the move ushered in the modern primary system four years later. 

Party primaries first emerged in 1910 as an outgrowth of the progressive movement’s determination to democratize the political process.  These efforts led to some major nation victories: the direct election of Senators in 1913 and women’s suffrage seven years later.  Primaries, however, progressed on a state-by-state basis in a messy, ad-hoc fashion that muddles the electoral process to this day.

TR entered the Republican convention in June having triumphed in nine of the 13 primaries held over the previous three months.  Despite emerging as the most popular – and electable – candidate, Roosevelt was unable to dislodge Taft, whose hold over the convention’s key committees carried him on the first ballot with 561 votes, 21 more than he needed to prevail.

After this bitter defeat, TR formed the Progressive or “Bull Moose” party to run as a third-party candidate.  Though his popularity propelled him past Taft in the general election, the split in the GOP handed the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson, the presidency.  TR may have lost the 1912 election, but his campaign revolutionized the presidential selection process, in which primaries would come to play an ever-greater role.

With the shelves of books that have been written on Roosevelt, Cowan deserves praise for unearthing new – and sometimes unsavory – details about TR’s political career.  Few other chroniclers have depicted TR’s willingness to place politics above principle.  Even his embrace of the primaries arose not from a heartfelt devotion to their democratic spirit, about which he was initially skeptical, but as a convenient tool to defeat Taft. 

The most striking of Roosevelt’s moral equivocations occurred at the Bull Moose convention.  TR disavowed the black delegates from the South to curry favor with white Southerners.  The move was both racist and antithetical to the notions of democracy on which TR rested his legitimacy.  “Looking at the way he conducted his campaign,” Cowan writes, “led me to wonder what, if anything, TR would not have done . . . in order to be elected President.”

Cowan’s blow-by-blow account of the Republican race, which is full of such revealing nuggets, would have been well served with a bit more in the way of context. Historians have almost universally depicted Roosevelt as the progressive reformer in the race.  Yet Taft’s forces painted TR as a corporate lackey for clamping down on antitrust enforcement while simultaneously condemning him as a dangerous populist for favoring a proposition allowing voters to overrule judicial decisions. 

Were these merely campaign smears, or did TR borrow ideas from across the political spectrum?  Some clarification – as well as a thorough exploration of the ideological differences between the candidates – would have been helpful.  On the whole, the contrast between the candidates was indeed stark.  TR was eager to institute far-reaching legislative and structural measures to combat the excesses of industrialization, while Taft, even as an avid trust-buster, largely embraced the status quo.

At the end of the book, one is left wondering, more than a century later, whether the primaries have lived up to their potential.  By neutering the power of the party bosses at the conventions in 1972, the current primary-based system, Cowan rightfully points out, has made the presidential selection process more democratic and open to anti-establishment candidates.

Despite these advances, however, it is fair to ask whether the primaries successfully reflect the electorate’s will.  Months before the Iowa caucus started off this primary season, five Republicans dropped out of the race.  Rather than voters determining whether Texas Governor Rick Perry and the rest were viable candidates, campaign donors, super PACs, and polling data narrowed the field before a single vote had been cast.

Instead of empowering voters, the current selection process has, in many ways, replaced the patronage stalwarts and backroom powerbrokers of the previous epoch with major donors – or self-funded billionaires like Donald Trump – and political consultants – new kinds of powerbrokers.

Voters are further underserved by the inequitable distribution of the primaries.  The first two primaries, in Iowa and New Hampshire, represent a mere 1.5 percent of the nation’s population, yet they exert an outsized influence.  Urged on by media who are eager to crown a nominee, donors and supporters typically flock to the winners of these early contests, often incapacitating candidates whose strength may lie in larger and more diverse states.  What should be a nationwide marathon often turns into a stampede, with voters in larger states facing a fait accompli by the time their primaries roll around.  Since 1972, all but two of the last 22 presidential nominees – George McGovern and Bill Clinton – have won in either Iowa or New Hampshire.

A national primary would cure some of these flaws.  It would give voters in larger states a more equitable say in the selection process.  And if candidates were made to appeal to more of the electorate at the outset, they would tailor their messages to a more diverse audience of voters.

The idea of holding a national primary is more than a century old, but it has never gained much traction.  And even if such as system were adopted, candidates would still have to gain access to mass media.  That might not be easy for many of them, as the television networks illustrated last year when they created a two-tiered system of GOP debates.  Candidates would also still need to get financing at levels sufficient to allow voters to make a fair assessment of each candidate – another tall order.

Cowan’s valuable book is a reminder that while the primaries are certainly an improvement over the convention-controlled selection process they displaced, they still have a long way to go if they are going to fulfill their original promise of letting the people rule.


Michael Bobelian, the author of Children of Armenia: A Forgotten Genocide and the Century-Long Struggle for Justice, is currently writing a book about the Supreme Court.  Follow him on Twitter at @mbobelian