Presidential Elections: The Primary Law Humbug

One hundred years ago, America was on the road to electing a new president. In 1916, only 25 states held primaries. Primaries were controlled by state law and had detractors as well as supporters. The 1916 Primaries were not considered the bell weathers of popular opinion of the candidates as they are today.

The 1916 primaries did highlight some of the same issues that we are seeing in 2016. These issues include: serious internal divisions within the Republican Party, concerns regarding the economy (in 2016, there have been rumblings that a recession is possible), and concern over America’s position in the spreading worldwide conflict (in 1916 it was the Great War and in 2016 it’s the War on Terrorism and the conflicts in the Middle East).

In Frank Leslie’s Weekly’s “The Trend of Public Opinion” editorial column, read a view on the presidential primaries and whether they provide the best candidates for the electorate written by journalist Charlton Bates Strayer.

Researchers interested in the history of America’s political process and the role of popular culture will find Frank Leslie’s Weekly full of unique information covering many phases of America’s presidential and political legacies.

Frank Leslie’s Weekly, published from 1855 to 1922, was an American illustrated news publication started by publisher and illustrator Frank Leslie. While only 30 copies of the first edition were printed, by 1897 its circulation had grown to an estimated 65,000 copies.


By Charlton Bates Strayer

Will You? - February 7, 1916

Will You? – February 7, 1916

The new system of nomination by primaries is not proving itself to be the route to a political millennium. Using her state-wide primary law for the first time, Indiana finds that it plays into the hands of the rich candidate. Each candidate was compelled to make his own organization all over the State, practically on a scale to correspond with a political party organization. The Presidential primary offers a fertile field for “favorite sons” to get on the list to the future embarrassment of their State delegations, but men of real presidential calibre, such as Root, Hughes and Roosevelt, have shown remarkable interest in keeping their names off the primary lists.

In Minnesota the bewildering and contradictory provisions of the primary law have produced a situation whereby Senator Cummins, “favorite son” of another state, stands alone on the Republican ballot. The Minneapolis Tribune declares, however, that if the Minnesota voters thought that other States concluded from this that Minnesota was for Cummins, they would proceed to “knock the harm out of harmony.” The predicament in Ohio and Massachusetts is even worse. There a candidate for delegate is required to obtain the consent of the candidate for President to whom he pledges his support.

“If the Legislature doesn’t repeal the law,” says the Ohio State Journal, “and make a nomination a matter of honest judgment, instead of a bucked and gagged affair, it will be universally discredited.” The Ohio delegate in the national convention will be bound to vote for the first choice of the primaries until he is chosen, or withdrawn, and after that for second choice, whether his name is before the convention or not.

Adopted in the name of progress and with the purpose of securing the will of the people, the Presidential primary in its practical working confuses the situation by multiplying the number of candidates and binds the hands of the people.

Source: Frank Leslie’s Weekly, March 23, 1916

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