Morgan's post on the racial and partisan motivations on behind the run off primary in the Southern States spurs me to comment on the partisan origins of the direct primary system itself. Much of the literature, borrowing from V. O. Key, has deplored the destructive effects that the direct primary has had on party organizations. Yet, I would contend that it was the parties themselves that introduced the system -- long before Robert LaFollette and the progressives identified themselves with it.
The practice of allowing voters to select the party nominees in a party run primary dates back at least to 1842. The circumstances that induced the Democratic party of Crawford County Pennsylvania to introduce the system are instructive. The Democrats had been the dominant party in the county for some years, but time and again, dissension and controversy attended their nominating conventions for local offices. Delegates complained of irregularities in the procedures, in the admission of delegates, in tabulating the votes, and commonly walked out of the proceedings.
Consequently, there were often more than one Democratic candidate running for a given office, opening the way for a Whig candidate to come out on top. The Whigs encouraged this practice by proposing that neither party offer a "regular" nominee for the general election. When this happened again in 1839, the Democrats endeavored to develop a system that would bring more harmony to the party by removing controversy in the proceedings.
The new plan was the work of one George Shellito of Sadsbury Township. It called for the Democrats in each of the townships to assembly on a Friday afternoon in September from 3:00 to 6:00 pm and vote -- by ballot -- on candidates for local offices. After the voters had made their choices in their townships, the chairman of the township meeting was required to bring the returns to a "convention" the following Monday when all the township chairman submitted the results of their townships. the total votes were added up, and the person with a plurality was the designated nominee.
The "Crawford County System" succeeded in bringing discipline to the Democratic party. Prospective candidates were told to announce their candidacies in the local newspapers three weeks prior to the meetings. Significantly, a committee was also formed to inquire if each candidate would agree ahead of time to support the nominee. Voters who met in the townships also endorsed resolutions promising to support the eventual nominees. The local Democratic newspaper sought to impress on its readers that the eminent fairness of the system removed any source of discord. "By this means, every man's vote will act directly on the result -- there will be no intermediate channels through which bargain and trickery can flow to prevent the will of the people from being honestly carried out." The outcome the editor correctly predicted for his readers would be "Union, Harmony and Victory!" [Giddens, p. 151].
There were still those skeptical Democrats who preferred to use the general election to settle internal party squabbles. The Democrats in one township published a set of resolutions opposing the plan because they feared the nominating process would continue to be manipulated. "The second Tuesday of October [the date of the general election] is about as good a day to settle a political dispute as any day in September [the day of the primary], and ... we will therefore, put off the settlement of this dispute until that day arrives." Such a strategy accorded with the Whigs own plans, and they again proposed that neither party offer an official slate of nominees. The turnout on the day of the primary was reported to be "gratifying", and the procedure seemed to work without a hitch. [Unfortunately, the secondary sources I have consulted do not offer empirical data demonstrating that the number of bolting candidates dropped and Democratic victories increased -- but they infer as much.]
Over the course of the nineteenth century the Crawford County Plan was adopted by party organizations in various locales in a number of states. One supposes that its greater appeal would be to the dominant party. The Republican Party, which bumped the Democrats as the majority party in Crawford County, adopted the plan in 1860. One question that frames my research on the origins of the direct primary is why the system did not seem to catch fire until the Progressive Era. It is apparent that one of the weaknesses of the Crawford system was that the voters could not be relied upon to provide a properly balanced ticket. Rural areas in particular complained of not getting their share of the offices. The Democrats of Crawford County abandoned the system in 1850 after it was complained that too many nominees hailed from Meadville.
The party run primary could easily come under suspicion. There were often tricky issues to resolve regarding who was and was not a member of the party and thereby qualified to vote, concern over when the polls should be opened and closed and who was looking after the ballots, and complaints of repeating and the like. Of course, the opposition party press made the most of whatever irregularities or suspicions surfaced. A Pennsylvania politician at the turn of the century insisted that "It is the universal opinion in this state that the Crawford County system ... does more for a machine than any other questionable device." [Wilder, p. 223]
When it was proposed to turn the task of running the primary over to the state many party leaders saw much merit in the proposal. For one thing, an official primary staffed by civil servants would remove some of the suspicions that lingered after earlier contests. A state run primary also relieved the party organization of the very considerable expense involved in administering a primary, which may have been the main reason it was not adopted in many poorer and rural areas.
In short, turning more of the nominating power over to the electorate was a price the parties were very willing to pay if the result was to bestow more legitimacy on their candidates, more harmony in their ranks and more unity for the general election.