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A man places a paper ballot in a ballot box
Dunklin County, Missouri. Voting in the primary election at the county courthouse

Using Primary Sources to Spark Inquiry About Presidential Primaries

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On Monday, January 15, 2024, the Republican Party will hold presidential caucuses in Iowa, signaling the start of the primary election season. Students might assume that the presidential primary calendar—from the Iowa Caucuses to the New Hampshire Primary to “Super Tuesday”—has always worked this way. However, the primary election process, as we experience it today, is a recent phenomenon.

Very early in the country’s history, the task of nominating candidates for the presidency fell to Congressional nominating caucuses. In these meetings, American congressmen would debate who to nominate to run for the presidency and vice presidency. Early in the 19th century, political parties started hosting national nominating conventions to determine their party’s nominee. During the conventions, party leaders and delegates (representatives from each state) would strategize about who in the party would have the best chance of winning the general election. By the late 20th century, the vast majority of states used primary elections or caucuses to determine who would be the nominee from each political party.

Primary sources give students a starting point to inquire about how and why these changes happened. Source analysis may also spark students’ curiosity about how our current system might also change over time.

Below are a few newspaper articles that highlight the outsized role nominating conventions once had in selecting candidates for the presidency. Consider using these articles to prompt students to ask questions about primary elections.

Front page newspaper with headline, "Harding is Nominated"
Americus times-recorder (Americus, Ga.;[Americus, Ga.?]), June 12, 1920, (Convention Extra) 
Newspaper article with title, Text of Senator Kennedy's Reply to Truman's Critique"
Text of Senator Kennedy’s Reply to Truman’s Criticism, Evening star (Washington, D.C.), July 5, 1960

Students can read any or all of the articles shared above. Note that the Americus Times-Recorder contains two articles about the 1920 Republican nominating convention: “Thrilling Battle Royal As Balloting Goes On” and “Ohio Senator Ends Deadlock on 10th Ballot.”

First, ask students to read the selected article and consider:

  1. What do they think is happening and what context clues support their reasoning (ex: date, terms, images, headlines)
  2. What questions does this article raise? (ex: vocabulary, definitions, people named, how other papers might have covered the same event)

Next, ask students where they might find more information to respond to the questions the article raises.

Depending on your students’ prior knowledge, ask students how reading this article affects their thinking about our current nominating process for the Presidency and why it might have changed over time. You can use this opening discussion to launch into a deeper study of the current primary election season, primaries in general, or how and why primaries have changed over time.

What takeaways did your students have from this activity? How do you use primary sources to teach about elections? Tell us in the comments!

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