History Proves Our Presidential Nominating Process Could Be Much Worse

Author: David Yee
Created: 21 June, 2016
Updated: 17 October, 2022
4 min read

A new Gallup poll says that two-thirds of Americans now believe that the political system is broken in how we choose the president of the United States.

A supermajority of America is soured on the whole process that has stood since 1856, when the Republicans joined Democrats in the use of political conventions to determine their party's candidate for president.

But it could be much worse -- almost unimaginably worse.

1831, The First Political Convention

It wasn't the Republicans or Democrats that invented the idea of the political convention, but an obscure minor party.

The Anti-Masonic Party, America's first true third-party challengers, held the very first political convention in Baltimore, nominating William Wirt for president and Amos Ellmaker for vice president.

Remarkably, the two did better than most later third-party tries, capturing over 7 percent of the popular vote and Vermont's 7 electoral votes.

History is not clear as to why they chose this system, but the origins of their party holds at least some clues.

The Anti-Masonic Party grew out of the religious revival in upstate New York, against both the tenets and perceived cronyism of the Masonic movement. This religious revival was a powerful one, with lasting impacts on American religion -- eventually creating the Latter Day Saints movement, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Because the Anti-Masonic Party was against even the perception of cronyism, the open, democratic format of a convention where every participant had an equal vote would have been appealing.

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The National Republican Party (the Anti-Jacksonians) immediately followed suit with their own convention, eventually placing second in the election with 37.4 percent of the popular vote and 49 electoral votes.

Seeing the tide of politics shifting, six months later the Democratic Party would hold their own convention, also in Baltimore in May 1832 -- with Andrew Jackson emerging as the candidate and eventual victor.

Republicans would eventually hold their own convention in 1856, forming the basis of the modern two-party system that we can recognize even today.

So What Did They Do Prior To 1831?

Presidential candidates were selected in the most undemocratic way possible -- in Congressional caucuses by their respective parties.

Voters, or even most party members, had no control whatsoever on the selection of the presidential candidates -- instead chosen by the 240 members of the House and 48 senators.

As bad as the current system is, the previous one was much, much worse -- where less than 300 men determined who the next presidential candidates would be.

The Anti-Masonic and National Republican parties were a direct reaction to this form of cronyism and undemocratic behavior, something we are seeing again today in voters who are growing weary of the current system's flaws and want further evolution of the political process.

2016 and Beyond

America has been stuck in the modern two-party system for over 100 years, with a system of laws and party regulations that protect the system from outsiders having a realistic chance at competing against them.

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Voters of all ilks are getting angry. It's not just independents, but also Republicans and Democrats angry about the system and any number of perceived (or real) injustices.

But what will it take to change things?

First and foremost, the realization that the political process can and does evolve -- the current system is not preordained or required.

Just because it's been around for over 100 years doesn't make it an institution too sacrosanct to challenge or change.



Second, it will be a ground up movement to change the current system, not just the ability to field a national contender.

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State laws are against anything that challenges the two-party system. From independents having to gather signatures ranging from 1,000 in some states to the massive 178,039 in California, to having to break a 15 percent polling threshold to be included in the debate process -- the deck is stacked against the challengers of the two-party system.

To change this, independents are going to have to work from the ground up; winning state legislative contests, challenging state laws, educating voters, and eventually challenging the all-powerful Commission on Presidential Debates.

Just fielding a popular candidate at the national level isn't enough. Simply put, most of them wouldn't have a prayer at winning within the current structure.

If independents are serious about fielding a better option for 2020, the time is now to start challenging local and state elections and laws.

Because old institutions never die easily, if we want to try for something better than the modern primary and convention process we're going to have to work for it.

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