Twenty years ago the study of presidential primaries was a neglected area of American politics. Only one book on the subject had been published since Louise Overacker's pioneering study in 1926. The explanation for this academic indifference was simple: presidential primaries did not then play a major role in the presidential nominating process.
Until 1972, presidential nominees were almost always the choice of state party leaders and insiders. Only fifteen states permitted rank-and- file voters to select delegates to the national conventions, and most of the primaries were advisory in nature; that is, the delegates were not legally bound to vote for the winner of the primary. But this is now all changed.
The post- 1968Democratic party reforms, indirectly at least, triggered the rapid spread of presidential primaries across the land. By 1980, roughly 35 state legislatures had adopted some form of presidential primary, sponsored originally by the Progressive movement early in the twentieth century. Moreover, because these laws tightened the link between delegate pledges and the individual presidential candidate, the candidate could now count on pledged delegates to support his candidacy as long as he remained in contention. Chiefly as a result of these two reforms the nomination decision has been taken out of the hands of the party elite and given to the mass electorate. Clearly, the road to the White House is now via the presidential primaries. Indeed, the nominee in the out- party (the party that does not control the White House) has, since 1972, invariably been the victor in the primaries. Also, all three incumbent presidents seeking reelection since then have clinched renomination by winning the primaries, though President Ford barely nosed out former California governor Ronald Reagan in 1976.