Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary.

Author:Dodds, Graham G.
Position:Book review

Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary. By Geoffrey Cowan. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016. 404 pages.

Scholars often trace the contemporary presidential primary system to changes enacted after the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Geoffrey Cowan, in his new book, Let The People Rule, is well qualified to write about modern primaries, having played a prominent role in creating the post-1968 changes: the journalist Howard K. Smith called Cowan "the man who did more to change Democratic conventions than anyone since Andrew Jackson first started them" (p. 3). Yet, Cowan's book focuses on changes in the other major political party over a half-century earlier: Theodore Roosevelt's (TR) unsuccessful campaign for the 1912 Republican nomination. The book contends that modern primaries are due as much to TR's actions leading up to the 1912 Republican National Convention in Chicago as to Cowan's efforts after the 1968 Democratic National Convention in that same city.

Cowan's book briefly covers the context of TR's 1912 campaign, including TR's promise in 1904 not to run in 1908, his choice of William Howard Taft as his successor, his disenchantment with Taft, and the entreaties of TR's friends for "the Colonel" to return to politics. According to Cowan, the turning point was Senator Robert La Follette's candidacy, which prompted TR to enter the race on February 25, 1912. As Cowan notes, TR faced a difficult task. He had to balance against both Taft and La Follette, against "unreasonable conservatism and unreasonable radicalism" (pp. 100-01).

More importantly, given TR's late entry into the contest, Taft had the support of most of the Republican establishment. For TR to prevail, he would have to rely on new state primary elections to get enough delegates to win the nomination; without the support of party elites, he would have to get the support of the people. In the early 1900s, progressives had pushed for "the direct election of delegates to national conventions" (p. 35), and in March 1912, TR embraced the push for primaries as a way to win the nomination, though his ostensible rationale was to ensure that the party adhered to "the genuine rule of the people" (p. 72). The slogan "Let the people rule" became his campaign theme.

In 1912, some states used primaries while others used traditional party conventions. Cowan describes TR's loss in North Dakota--the country's first statewide direct...

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