Geoffrey Cowan

ABC News once called Geoffrey Cowan “the man who did more to change Democratic conventions than anyone since Andrew Jackson first started them.” That’s because he helped convince the Democratic Party to curb the influence of party bosses and reform its presidential candidate selection process after Hubert Humphrey gained the party’s 1968 nomination without winning a single primary. Inspired by his own experiences and President Theodore Roosevelt’s belief in direct democracy, Cowan penned his latest book, Let The People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary. Cowan, a University Professor who holds the Annenberg Family Chair in Communication Leadership at USC Annenberg, recently spoke to USC senior writer Marc Ballon about the presidential election process.

How did Theodore Roosevelt’s passion to “let the people rule” change presidential primaries?

He opposed primaries before he embraced them, but he was such a charismatic figure that once he became their champion, the number of states holding them more than doubled to 13. Although it can certainly be improved, the presidential primary process has served Americans well in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

You argue that John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama probably wouldn’t have been nominated in the absence of presidential primaries.

Primaries have sometimes proved that candidates can get popular support, even if there are substantial doubts about their viability. By winning West Virginia, a Protestant state, Kennedy proved that a Catholic could win. That forced the hand of party leaders, including Catholic bosses who had doubted that JFK could be elected. In Reagan’s case, many argued that he was too old to serve as president. Then he ran an extremely vigorous primary campaign that made his age less of an issue. There are a lot of analogies between John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Barack Obama in 2008. Even many African-Americans didn’t think Obama could win and didn’t rally to him until he won the caucuses in Iowa, a heavily white state.

What are drawbacks to the current primary and caucus system?

Some people criticize the practice of starting with Iowa and New Hampshire, two small, homogeneous and largely rural states. Others note that by allowing states to hold closed primaries where independents can’t vote, primaries exclude 40 percent of the electorate and lead candidates to play to the often-ideological base. And caucuses don’t allow for a secret ballot and only allow participation by voters who can attend during the hours when they are held.

Why not replace them with national same-day primary elections?

National primaries would be so expensive that it could be almost impossible for fresh and sometimes little-known candidates to emerge. Additionally, the current primary system, with its emphasis on retail politics, forces candidates to mix with the people and learn their true concerns. I think that’s a plus. But there might be a virtue in regional primaries as has been proposed by the Association of Secretaries of State.

After losing the Republican nomination, Theodore Roosevelt created the Bull Moose Party, which quickly faded. Why the difficulty in creating third parties in American politics?

There are some structural impediments that make it difficult to create third parties, and to some extent, primaries now provide a way for parties to change themselves. In the past century, third parties have quickly disappeared. Think of George Wallace’s American Independent Party in 1968, John Anderson in 1980, Ross Perot in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 2000. In general, those efforts were based on candidates or a momentary cause and not on a national movement.