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The Hustling Candidate and the Advent of the Direct Primary: A California Case Study1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 January 2013

John F. Reynolds*
University of Texas at San Antonio


Many political scientists and historians attribute the candidate-centered campaign, a defining characteristic of the modern American political system, to the appearance of the direct primary during the Progressive Era. During the nineteenth century, when the major parties selected their nominees in conventions, office seekers maintained a lower profile, and partisan-minded voters were not overly influenced by the personal characteristics of the candidates. Using California as a case study, this essay traces the emergence of a new breed of aggressive office seekers at the turn of the twentieth century. It looks specifically at the canvassing activities of would-be gubernatorial nominees in the weeks leading up to the state convention. In its heyday, the convention system marginalized elective office seekers. The multilayered convention system was too decentralized and complex to be manipulated in the interests any one candidate. Candidates began to exert more influence over the nomination process in the waning years of the nominating convention. The introduction of state regulation of party functions took control of the process out of the hands of local partisan clubs and cliques. Delegates began to be selected on the basis of their affiliation with a gubernatorial candidate. Conventions lost much of their deliberative character, and voting blocs emerged tied to particular candidates through the unit rule. By the time the direct primary appeared on the scene in 1909, the aggressive office seeker was already a fixture on the political landscape. In short, scholars have exaggerated the impact of the shift from indirect to direct nominations and have overlooked the implications of the regulation of political parties when the convention system was still in place. The direct primary was part of a long tradition of reform designed to serve the interests of the parties' office-seeking or office-holding contingent at the expense of the party organization.

Copyright © Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2013

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An earlier version of this paper was presented at the thirty-fourth Social Science History Association conference in Long Beach, California (2009), where political scientist Ronald King furnished helpful commentary. The author would also like to thank the journal's anonymous reviewers for their contributions to improving the essay.


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25 Los Angeles Times, June 6, 1894, 4; San Francisco Examiner, Aug. 18, 1898, 1.

26 Ethnic, religious, and military affiliations were also recognized, but they were of secondary importance. San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 26, 1898, 1; San Francisco Examiner, Aug. 24, 1894, 2.

27 San Francisco Examiner, Aug. 19, 1890, 2; Aug. 28, 1902, 1.

28 San Francisco Examiner, Aug. 25, 1902, 3.

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30 Los Angeles Times, Aug. 22, 1886, 6; San Francisco Examiner, June 23, 1882, 3; June 24, 1882, 3.

31 San Francisco Examiner, Aug. 26, 1886, 5; June 18, 1894, 1.

32 The relevant laws can be found in California Statutes (1895), no. 181, pp. 207–18; (1897), no. 106, pp. 115–34; (1899), no. 46, pp. 47–56; (1901), no. 197, pp. 606–19.

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37 Excluded from the analysis is the vote for one delegate in the 73rd assembly district whose name was on both the Gage and Flint tickets.

38 San Francisco Examiner, June 18, 1894, 1; Pardee to J. Cal Ewing, July 20, 1906, folder “July 20–26,” box 34, Pardee Papers.

39 San Francisco Examiner, Aug. 27, 1902, 3.

40 San Francisco Examiner, Aug. 9, 1902, 6; Aug. 13, 1902, 4; Aug. 16, 1902, 1.

41 The law applied only to state delegates elected under the primary election law. A motion to apply this principle to the mostly rural delegates appointed outside the provisions of the law failed in 1902 but was in place by 1906. See San Francisco Examiner, Sept. 3, 1902, 4; Los Angeles Times, Aug. 27, 1906, 2.

42 Democrats unanimously elected their gubernatorial nominees in 1898 and 1906. In those years the vote on governor was substituted by the first recorded roll call in each convention: resolving a contested delegation dispute from San Francisco in 1898 and selecting the temporary convention chair in 1906. In Graphs 1 and 2, the county is the unit of analysis except in populous San Francisco and Los Angeles, where delegates were elected by assembly district in 1902 and 1906. Tiny Alpine County, represented by a single delegate, is not included in the analysis.

43 After 1898, counties containing more than one assembly district elected delegates by district rather than countywide.

44 The Republican vote in 1898 was on the selection of temporary chair. After the Gage forces won this contest his rivals dropped out, and he was nominated unanimously.

45 San Francisco Examiner, Aug. 18, 1898, 1; June 21, 1894, 1.

46 The correlations are based on the percentage of a county delegation's vote for the candidate with the most votes at the end of the first roll call or in procedural matters the more numerous “aye” or “nay” vote. A drawback to the procedure is that it treats large and small counties as the same. This distortion is diminished after 1898 when the state's two main urban counties were divided up into assembly districts.

47 The newspapers usually did not publish a county-by-county record of the voting on minor state offices, and the handful listed here are all that can be found in the major newspapers. Most of the time, no roll call was required when it came to selecting a lesser state official. About two-thirds of the time nominees for lieutenant governor, treasurer, comptroller, attorney general, superintendant of public instruction, and secretary of state were approved by acclamation or in noncompetitive roll calls where the winner took two-thirds or more of the vote.

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