“You know what, guys? This isn’t easy.” That was Barack Obama’s admonition to his campaign aides back in 2008 after staffers accused Hillary Clinton of being a fake. Clinton had broken down at a café in Portsmouth, New Hampshire while discussing how passionate she was about running for president. Regardless of her sincerity, Obama could appreciate that they were both in one of the most grueling stages of a presidential campaign.
Eight years later, here we are again at the presidential primaries, when the winnowing for the White House hits full force and each side picks a dog for the fight. It’s a month when Democrats and Republicans in 29 states cast ballots in primary elections in a frenzy of strategizing and espionage that sends Washington’s political class and its biggest donors into fits and convulsions.
As famed Making of the President author Theodore H. White once put it, the primary is America’s original contribution to the art form of democracy, and political pros hate it because it “removes the nomination of candidates from the hands of cynical party leadership and puts it directly in the hands of the people.” And in this year’s cycle, unlike most in recent memory, voters have given a giant middle finger to the so-called establishment in both parties.
For those who want to blame someone, start with Theodore Roosevelt. He served as president from 1901 to 1909, but by 1912 he was looking to get back into the game and decided to challenge the sitting president, William Howard Taft, for the Republican nomination. To do so, Teddy had to circumvent the wise men in Washington’s (then) smoke-filled rooms, so he pushed the idea of primaries—let the people rule, he exhorted. Roosevelt never made it back to the White House, but he planted the seed.
It didn’t reach full flower until 1972. Under this system, the candidate who wins a majority (or a plurality) of the state primaries gets the national party nomination. John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Obama all benefited from this system, because none of them were Washington’s darlings.
“The whole point of this was to get it away from the bosses and democratize the process,” says former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, who defeated Capitol Hill heavyweights Al Gore, Joe Biden and Gary Hart for the 1988 Democratic nomination. “Have we done that? Well, yeah.”
That accomplishment carries a lot of risk. The grassroots might be galvanized by a candidate who doesn’t follow the capital’s rules, such as a real estate billionaire from Manhattan or a democratic socialist senator from Vermont. The likelihood that voters will continue to deviate from politicians such as Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush and turn toward mass movements that oppose Wall Street bailouts and U.S. interventionism is sending shock waves across D.C. Neoconservative New York Times columnist David Brooks is afraid of whom voters might favor; he admitted on PBS’s NewsHour, “I wish we had gray men in suits—[big] donors and other people going and saying, ‘We’re just going to pick this guy.’ ”
Until Brooks and other establishment types get their wish, the grind will continue. When I ask former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who ran for the Republican nomination in 2012, what he considers the worst part of the primaries, he laughs and says, “Raising money.” With the exception of Donald Trump, who says he is funding his own campaign, most candidates would agree. Then there’s what Dukakis recalls as the constant “getting out of bed in the morning, going to an airport, going up in the air, coming down, making a speech, going back to the airport, up in the air, coming down and making another speech.”
Others see advantages to the long primary slog. “You get your ideas tested,” says conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan, who ran an insurgent campaign for president three times beginning in 1992. “You’ll be up there speaking and suddenly there’s a round of applause for something you’ve just said and you’ve said it differently than before. You build up your case and your argument and your speech.” On the road to the White House, the primaries are the most difficult hurdle. It’s where candidates learn which issues rouse voters and sharpen the themes they hope will carry them through to the fall. Until they win election night, candidates make those stands in local diners, living rooms, makeshift cable news studios and—in the case of Trump and Bernie Sanders—giant sports arenas that pack tens of thousands of voters, all the while praying that nothing fizzles or, worse, derails their presidential hopes. As JFK said while working his way through those final weeks, “If they don’t love you in March, April and May, they won’t love you in November.”