McGovern-Fraser Commission

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The Democratic National Committee's McGovern-Fraser Commission recommended doubling the number of states holding presidential primary elections from fifteen to thirty between 1968 and 1972, among other reforms. By 1992, forty states had some form of primary election.[1] The Commission also barred elected officials who held public office from serving as state delegates fearing they held too much power. That reform was undone in the early 1980s by the Hunt Commission and the creation of Superdelegates.


After the chaos of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where Hubert Humphrey did not appear on any primary ballot but took the nomination amid protests and riots, the Democratic party attempted to reform its nomination process.

With the assassination of Robert Kennedy who was a leading critic of President Johnson's war policy, Humphrey the new frontrunner was regarded as a war hawk who would continue President Johnson's Vietnam War policy. Johnson dropped out of the race due to growing unpopularity of himself and the war. Sen. George McGovern made himself heir of Bobby Kennedy's dovish stance. Most states at the time used closed caucuses and state conventions, controlled by “party regulars” and insiders to select national delegates. Machine caucuses in several states accumulated enough delegates for Humphrey to win nomination without appearing on any primary ballot. In the aftermath of the loss to Richard Nixon, Humphrey agreed to a reform commission and appointed one of his lieutenants, Donald Fraser, to co-chair the McGovern-Fraser Commission.

Chairman George McGovern wanted to "open up" the process of delegate selection and strip figures like Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley[2] of their ability to select delegates for the upcoming 1972 convention. Daley felt particularly betrayed, having stuffed the ballot box for the Democrats and the Kennedy's to rob Richard Nixon of the presidency in 1960,[3] to then be accused by liberal Democrats of "gestapo tactics" in the streets of Chicago.

Party bosses out, New Left activists in

McGovern was critical of the insider establishment's way of choosing a nominee and wanted to switch over to primaries. Donald Fraser was a lieutenant in the Humphrey & Mondale Democratic Farmer-Labor (DFL) machine which dominated Minnesota where caucuses are popular. So a compromise was sought. The general feeling was that party insiders such as Mayor Daley and Southern Democrat bosses controlled too much power and through state party caucuses and conventions were able to impose their candidates on a national convention.

The commission recommended bringing more youth, women, and minorities into the delegate selection process and the party apparatus which then stacked the deck in favor of McGovern with New Left activist-delegates in 1972. It also recommended parties use their influence in State Legislatures to push for a more open process, which in many states meant abandoning the local caucus and using direct primary ballot elections.

The McGovern-Fraser Commission (or "reform movement") required state parties to develop written rules and post uniform statewide notification of the date, time, and location of precinct caucus meetings or party primary elections. There was a common practice in some Southern states, Mississippi for example, all-white local party bosses held meetings in obscure locations so that black majorities in a county or district were unaware of the time and place of a significant party election. Although many provisions the commission brought about were undone in the early 1980s, several key provisions have remained, and impacted Republican party rules as well. Prior to McGovern-Fraser, several states had no written guidelines governing party conventions, caucuses, and the delegate selection process at each level, and were based mostly on local tradition, which often meant cronyism and the boss's rule. The system had been used effectively by Democrats in their voter suppression of Blacks for nearly 100 years.

Another issue the commission dealt with was so-called “front-loading” in the newly expanded primary schedule. States try to crowd each other out to be early or first. Traditionally, candidates didn't even compete in all primaries; rather they mapped a strategy as to which primaries to compete in, not so much to win delegates, rather as a test to prove viability to party bosses in caucus states. John Kennedy's West Virginia win was intended to prove Kennedy's Catholicism was not an impediment in a predominantly Protestant state. Under the new system as Jimmy Carter was to demonstrate in 1976, a candidate needed to start early and compete in all primaries and garner free media attention.

The 1972 Credentials Committee at the convention under the McGovern-Fraser reforms replaced Daley's contingent of the Illinois delegation with a group sent by Jesse Jackson[4] and also replaced a delegation from Mississippi with another group.

Under McGovern-Fraser, new blood could ride the fast-track to party power. Among them were Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, and Hillary Clinton. With the establishment of permanent Superdelegates later who didn't have to climb the traditional ladder to party power, this group rejected progressivism and the New Left in favor of a more money grubbing corporatist model, calling themselves "New Democrats".[5]

See also


  1. See below, Reforming the Presidential Nomination Process, Chapter 1 Choosing Presidential Candidates, Steven S. Smith & Melanie J. Springer, eds., Brookings Institute, 2009, p.3.
  2. Ribicoff vs Daley at the Democratic Convention 1968
  3. Did Daley rob Nixon of the Presidency in 1960?
  4. See U.S. Supreme Court Cousins v. Wigoda, 419 U.S. 477 (1975)
  5. Where the New Democrats went wrong, Fred Branfman, Salon, Aug 15 2000.