Skip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
Primary education: How Oregon blazed the way for primary elections
top story

Primary education: How Oregon blazed the way for primary elections

  • Updated
  • 0

Let’s talk about a state that’s significant in every presidential primary.

Its primary isn’t the first election in the lineup, but it’s a state that’s consistently willing to support underdog candidates; a state looked to as a place to give momentum to a campaign.

It’s a state that has hosted historic debates and a place where news writers can boldly proclaim: If you don’t campaign here, you don’t win.

It’s a state that only recently backed a charismatic upstart over a favorite son — a sitting U.S. senator for the state — prompting the home state candidate to withdraw after a landslide loss.

We’re not talking about Florida in 2016.

We’re talking about Oregon, circa the 1960s.

Although 2016’s primary election may be one of those odd ones in which the contest for the nomination in the two major parties is not yet wrapped up by the time Oregonians vote on May 17, it wasn’t that long ago that Oregon was an important state in the primaries in every election.

In fact, prior to the 1972 election, Oregon was one of just a handful of states to have a direct primary that required delegates to party conventions to vote for the candidates who won the state’s popular vote.

As for that all-important momentum, back in that day, Oregon was seen as important because it was the last state to vote before the election in the largest primary state, California.

‘The Oregon System’

Oregon was not the first state to hold a presidential primary. That honor is generally accorded to North Dakota, which held its first presidential primary on March 19, 1912, about a month before Oregon held its first presidential primary. But the inventor of the presidential primary, according to Oregon newspapers of the era, was Oregon.

According to the Oregon Historical Society, from 1902 to 1914, Oregon created a number of laws that gave citizens more direct control over their government, including the creation of a system that allows voters to put measures on the ballot, direct elections for U.S. senators and the ability to nominate candidates for public office in primaries. These progressive reforms were collectively known as the Oregon System.

In fact, when California was adopting similar reforms in 1911, the San Francisco Call declared in its Jan. 13 edition “California to Adopt Oregon System.”

Oregon created its own direct primary law in 1904, but it initially did not include the presidential election, leaving it to the parties to appoint their delegates for the national conventions. According to issues of the Morning Oregonian from November 1910, voters approved an amendment to the 1904 primary law on Nov. 8 that changed the law — delegates to the conventions would be legally bound to vote for candidates who won a popular vote in the state.

Even though it was a pioneering measure, it didn’t even make the front page of the Morning Oregonian on Nov. 9. (Although, to be fair, that ballot featured 32 separate measures that the paper had to report on.) Instead, the paper relegated the passage of the measure to page 7.

“The presidential primary bill has a strong lead,” was all the paper said in a roundup of preliminary election results. The paper got around to explaining the measure in its Nov. 15 issue.

The Medford Mail Tribune’s issue that same day declared in a headline on a front-page story that “Oregon will be first to ballot,” before explaining that the passage of the bill meant Oregonians would get to express a preference for president before nominations were made.

The primary election idea was supported by editorials, including some which appeared in the Gazette-Times. Copies of the paper from that month are missing from both the Benton County Historical Society’s collection, and the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library’s microfilm archives of the paper.

However, that year the G-T featured a few passionate editorials in support of primary elections. Wrote editor N.R. Moore in one editorial, published on Feb. 12, 1910: “I also note that the voters not only of Oregon but of other states are becoming more interested and wiser politically. They fully realize that the direct primary promotes independent voting and independent voting is the only salvation and hope of the people.”

Moore said the method of selecting nominees before the direct primary law resulted in “rotten and disgusting politics” in which insiders traded bribes, influence and favors for nominations.

“The people are thinking for themselves and intend to act for themselves and for their interests,” Moore continued. “They do not believe in the disenfranchisement of the voters of Oregon; but they do believe in the intelligence and the sovereignty of the common people.”

On Feb. 28, 1911, the Morning Oregonian quoted Jonathan Bourne, one of Oregon’s senators, as praising Oregon’s primary law and denouncing then-president William Howard Taft for controlling the Republican Party to secure his own renomination.

The paper paraphrases Bourne, then president of the Progressive Republican League, as saying that when all states enact Oregon’s primary law, it would “destroy the power of the Federal machine to re-nominate a president or demand his successor.”

The paper quoted him as saying that it was a more direct form of democracy, not subject to influence or intimidation.

“The composite citizen knows more and acts from higher motives than any single individual, however great or well developed. In the composite citizen, selfishness is minimized, while in the individual it is maximized.”

The headline over The New York Times’ Sept. 3, 1940 obituary for Bourne noted that he had “Fathered the Oregon System for the Election of Senators by a Popular Vote.” The 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913, mandated the election of senators by popular vote.

In July 1911, the Morning Oregonian was reporting that four other states had “patterned” presidential primaries on Oregon’s law, noting that contrary to “general impression” the state would not be the first to hold a presidential primary, but would instead follow North Dakota, Wisconsin, Nebraska and New Jersey in the elections the next year.

The ‘steam roller’

Bourne’s statements claiming Taft would use the party mechanisms to secure his own renomination proved prescient.

According to an August 2008 story in the Smithsonian Magazine, former President Theodore Roosevelt was unhappy with Taft, who had succeeded him in office, and challenged him in the primaries in 1912.

On the Republican side, Oregon and both Benton and Linn counties supported former President Theodore Roosevelt over the sitting president. The G-T reported on April 20, 1912, that Roosevelt secured 395 votes in Benton County to Taft’s 319; in Linn County, Roosevelt had an 847-549 edge. (On the Democratic side, Woodrow Wilson prevailed in Oregon and Benton and Linn counties.)

Showing that the primary system was still new to many readers, the G-T ran an article on April 23 explaining “some interesting facts about recent primaries,” specifically that Oregon’s 10 delegates would be required to vote for Roosevelt at the convention “no matter their personal preference.”

According to the Smithsonian Magazine, although Roosevelt would win all the primary states except Massachusetts, Taft dominated among states that appointed delegates. He would secure the nomination in a highly contentious Republican convention, but even before it ended, Roosevelt was looking at a third party run.

“Ted may head new party now” the June 21, 1912 G-T wrote, talking about the contentious convention and the “steam roller” preventing Roosevelt’s nomination.

Roosevelt eventually did create a new Progressive Party to run in the presidential election. The G-T noted that this seemed to split support among local Republicans, noting that one local Roosevelt partisan was wearing a red bandanna “the size of a tablecloth” to indicate his support of Roosevelt’s new party, but other party members hadn’t lined up with him.

Support Local Journalism

Your membership makes our reporting possible.

Roosevelt’s Progressives would eventually place second in the election behind Wilson’s Democrats because of the split in the Republican vote.

The mixed system

The presidential primary continued to be discussed in Oregon newspapers over the next decade, but the idea didn’t gain much traction across the nation.

The Morning Oregonian wrote on Nov. 16, 1914 that it had been believed the 1912 conventions would be the last to nominate the president, but that no longer appeared to be the case.

“Congress has been remiss about acting on the presidential primary and that remissiveness has not been altogether due to oversight,” the paper wrote.

The Sunday Oregonian reported on May 9, 1920 that both parties were dropping attempts to create national presidential primary law.

“Little probably will be heard from now on of the once loud and persistent agitation for presidential primaries,” the paper wrote.

Geoffrey Cowan, whose work rewriting the rules for the Democratic Convention in 1968 helped create the modern primary system, said in his 2016 book “Let the People Rule,” that political scientists consider 1912 the beginning of the “mixed system” of presidential nominations. Around a dozen states held primaries in that time, but Cowan said the parties were able to “ignore or overcome” the results of the primaries, giving 1952 as an example.

In that year, the Democrats nominated Adlai Stevenson for president in 1952 over Estes Kefauver, whom Cowan said won 11 of 12 primaries. In fact, Stevenson didn’t campaign in any state. And Cowan added that Dwight Eisenhower was nominated that year even though he won only five states and lost six to William Howard Taft’s son Robert Taft.

Oregon and Linn and Benton counties all strongly backed Kefauver, the G-T reported on May 17 that year. On the Republican side, Eisenhower was the big winner in Oregon and the two counties.

Two days later, the G-T’s editor and publisher, Robert C. Ingalls, wrote an editorial in which he worried the Eisenhower committees had selected too many inexperienced delegates to send to the Chicago convention, people who might be tricked into voting for someone other than Eisenhower.

“It is far better to send experienced men to Chicago, men and women who are for Eisenhower and know how the convention manipulations are worked,” Ingalls wrote. Somehow, however, Eisenhower emerged from the 1952 as the party nominee and went on to win the presidency.

Memorable moments

Oregon’s presidential primary also has helped to generate other notable moments:

For example, the 1948 Republican primary in Oregon was significant because it hosted the first broadcast debate, according to an National Public Radio article published in 2015. The May 17, 1948 G-T reported that all the major radio networks would transmit a debate in Portland scheduled for that night between Thomas E. Dewey and Harold Stassen. The debate was centered around a single question: shall the Communist Party in the United States be outlawed?”

The 1960 primary featured a result that was echoed this year in the Florida primary that knocked Sen. Marco Rubio out of the race. Oregon and Benton County backed John F. Kennedy in its primary, the G-T reported May 21, over Sen. Wayne L. Morse, from Oregon. Morse, who was considered a “favorite son” by many in the Oregon election, dropped out of the race after his loss in Oregon, his seventh straight loss to Kennedy.

The 1964 Republican nomination contest offered another example of how Oregon could shape the course of a race. Oregon voters backed the underdog, Nelson Rockefeller, who campaigned heavily in the state (an advertisement for Rockefeller in the G-T was headlined “He Cared Enough to Come to Corvallis.”) Rockefeller’s win snapped a losing streak for him to Barry Goldwater.

“Rockefeller’s upset victory in Oregon belatedly lifted his presidential campaign off the ground today and revived his hopes for winning the more crucial California presidential primary,” said a G-T article on May 16, 1964. Rockefeller’s win in Oregon put him back into contention in California, but Barry Goldwater, the eventual nominee, posted a narrow victory there.

The dominant primary

The last election to take place in the mixed era was 1968. Facing a primary challenge from the anti-Vietnam War candidates Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, President Lyndon B. Johnson chose not to run and instead supported his vice president, Hubert Humphrey.

Robert Kennedy campaigned in Oregon, even visiting Corvallis and the mid-valley twice. Eugene McCarthy also campaigned heavily in the state. Kennedy, who had entered the race after the primary season had begun, had not lost to McCarthy, who had won in the earliest voting states.

“McCarthy upset winner of RFK,” the G-T declared May 29, and the paper once again wrote of the importance of the victory on the coming California election. (Kennedy did post a narrow victory over McCarthy in Linn County.)

Meanwhile, Richard M. Nixon handily won Oregon, including big wins in Linn and Benton counties. Nixon also visited Corvallis that year, and had campaigned in the city in 1952 as well.

Oregon would once again not match California’s result, and Robert Kennedy proved victorious, but the race was thrown into chaos when he was assassinated during a victory speech.

Reporting on the death on June 6, the G-T reported that Robert Kennedy’s had spoken twice in Corvallis during the campaign.

“The senator came to Corvallis on almost the last of his public appearances, arriving late in the afternoon of May 27 for a 20-minute speech on the steps of the courthouse. From here he went to Portland to board a plane for campaigning in California.”

The paper said he also visited the city for an address at Gill Coliseum April 18, where he drew an audience of around 6,500.

Cowan, writing in “Let the People Rule,” said McCarthy and Robert Kennedy “captured the public imagination” in the primary, but that didn’t overcome the power of the incumbency.

“Humphrey, who had not won a single primary, seemed certain to capture the nomination, particularly after Robert Kennedy was assassinated on June 6. ... In order to prevent that from ever happening again, I helped create a commission that led the 1968 Democratic Convention to change the party’s delegate selection rules for the future.”

Nixon won the presidency that year, and Cowan said following the 1968 election both parties ultimately adopted rules that would make it difficult for a candidate who had not competed in the primaries to be nominated.

A stab at relevancy

As more states began to hold primary elections following the 1968 election, Oregon’s influence faded.

In reporting on Democrat George McGovern’s win in the state in the May 23, 1972 primary, the G-T said only McGovern had bothered to campaign in the state; his rivals choose to bypass Oregon.

Oregon did attempt to become more relevant in 1996 by moving its primary up to March 12. However, with incumbent President Bill Clinton facing no challenge, only the Republican race was in play, and only Bob Dole campaigned in the state.

The G-T gave “Roses” to the 53.7 percent of Oregonians to vote in the primary on the editorial page on March 15 that year, which it said it was the highest level of any state that had voted up to that point.

“People are still sure to question the cost of holding a presidential vote apart from the May primary, given that it cost $700,000 to run the primary plus $270,000 to produce the Voter Pamphlet for it. The goal cited for the early date was to draw more attention from candidates, but only Dole came through the state in the period immediately before voting.”

Before the 2000 primary election, Oregon’s legislature returned the primary date to its place in May, where it had been located for decades. This year’s primary occurs on May 17.

Anthony Rimel can be reached at, 541-758-9526, or via Twitter @anthonyrimel.


Get local news delivered to your inbox!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News