The Direct Primary

There has been frequent public discussion on the role of the primary in the candidate selection process. Do, for example, contested primaries exhaust candidate resources and diminish chances for success in the general election? Do they help build name recognition and momentum? At a more basic level, are primaries opportunities for the electorate, or the parties, to select the best-qualified, or most competitive, candidates for the general election?

These core questions were also asked during the extensive debates leading up to Vermont's adoption of the direct primary in 1915 (Act No. 4, 1915). The first primary was held in 1916.

Prior to the primary, candidates were selected through a party caucus system based on a hierarchy of town and state delegates.

The debate over whether to switch to a direct primary was closely contested through several sessions of the General Assembly and two statewide referenda.

In 1914 the Legislative Reference Bureau provided legislators with the principal arguments in favor of the caucus and primary systems. We have excerpted the Bureau's report as a way of understanding the debate over the primary.

Primary and general election results are one measure of whether the expectations of primary supporters were achieved and provide some context for the current debate over the impact of contested primaries.

In using the election results there are several cautions. Until 1958, for example, victory in the Republican primary assured victory in the general election. Conversely, Democrats, without a hope in the general election, did not have contested primaries until after their first electoral success in 1958.

The reality of Republican dominance shaped everything from early campaign finance restrictions (which were applied to the primary, not the general, election) to the use of informal mechanisms to restrict the pool of candidates for any one election.

Chief among these informal mechanisms was the Mountain Rule. A governor from east of the Green Mountains was always followed by a governor from the west. The lieutenant governor was from the opposite of the state than the governor. Until 1928, governors were expected, informally, to serve a single two-year term. After 1928 governors were, informally, accorded two two-year terms and an informal apprenticeship ladder anticipated that qualified candidates would move from speaker of the house, to lieutenant governor to governor.

The emergence of a competitive Democratic Party in the 1950's and 1960's changed these rules. The presence of third parties starting in the 1970's, lengthening tenure of governors and other changing contexts all influenced the primary process.

These contexts should be noted when viewing the election results.

This page was last updated: 2014-06-27