Robert G. Boatright, "Reform and Retrenchment: A Century of Efforts to Fix Primary Elections" (Oxford UP, 2024)


Until 1900, most political parties in the United States chose their leaders – either in back rooms with a few party elites making decisions or in conventions. The direct primary, in which voters select party nominees for state and federal offices, was one of the most widely adopted political reforms of the early twentieth century Progressive movement.

Intuitively, the direct primary sounds democratic. Voters directly select the candidates. They have more of say over who will ultimately represent or govern them. But decades of scholarship suggests that direct primaries might not have changed the outcomes of party nominations. The conventional wisdom is that as the strength of the Progressive movement declined and voters paid attention to other issues. Party leaders were able to reassert control over candidate selection. In Reform and Retrenchment: A Century of Efforts to Fix Primary Elections (Oxford UP, 2024), Dr. Robert G. Boatright insists this narrative is incorrect and misleading for contemporary efforts to reform the primary election system in the U.S. because some of the early concerns about primaries are still with us today.

The book presents data from 1928-1970 explaining the type of reforms states implemented and their success or failure. Dr. Boatright argues that the introduction of the indirect primary created more chaos than scholars have previously documented. Political parties, factions, and reform groups manipulated primary election laws to gain advantage, often under the guise of enhancing democracy. How does this history impact contemporary plans for reform of the primary system? Many suggested reforms were tried – and failed – during the 20th century. Boatright concludes that despite the clear flaws in the direct primary system, little can be done to change the primary system. Reformers should instead focus on elections and governance. The end of the podcast features his suggestions.

During the podcast, Rob mentions Dr. Jack Santucci’s More Parties or No Parties: The Politics of Electoral Reform in America (Oxford 2022).

Dr. Robert G. Boatright is Professor of Political Science at Clark University in Worcester, MA and the Director of Research for the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona. His research focuses on the effects of campaign and election laws on the behavior of politicians and interest groups with a particular emphasis on primary elections and campaign finance laws. He is the author or editor of 9 books. Heath Brown and I have interviewed Rob previously on New Books in Political Science: Trumping Politics as Usual:Masculinity, Misogyny, and the 2016 Elections

(with co-author Valerie Sperling) and The Deregulatory Moment?: A Comparative Perspective on Changing Campaign Finance Laws.

Your Host

Susan Liebell

Susan Liebell is a Professor of Political Science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

View Profile