Nonpartisan League founder A. C. Townley had a simple strategy to elect NPL members to state office in North Dakota. It relied on getting members to ignore their old political tribalism while taking advantage of others. Townley figured out that he could make use of a very recent development, the primary election of party nominees, to take over both major parties. Townley’s thinking was, why try to start a third party when, using the primary system, he could more easily take over the old ones?

[This is part four in a series on lessons to be learned from the history of the Nonpartisan League. If you missed the previous three, here is part one, here is part two, and here is part three.]

After organizing a large group of farmers into the NPL, a dues-paying organization with its own media operation, the next step was selecting candidates. At local NPL meetings members were selected to run for state office regardless of their previous party affiliation, although the majority ran as Republicans in Republican-dominant North Dakota. In Democratic-leaning states, the NPL mainly ran Democrats. All that mattered was that they pledged to support the shared goals of the NPL. From “Political Prairie Fire” by Robert Morlan:

[E]xtreme care was utilized in the selections, and candidates were picked with little regard for party affiliation, which, as the Leader remarked, was “as immaterial as the way he wears his whiskers.” [...]

A political convention had met, with an almost unprecedented singleness of purpose, to endorse candidates to run on the tickets of both major parties. While there was only one Democrat among the group running for state office, there was a better spread among legislative candidates: 98 Republicans, 21 Democrats, and 2 Socialists had been selected in the district conventions, and it is interesting to note that while many districts were solidly Republican and a few had endorsed all Democrats, there were numerous cases of both Republicans and Democrats selected in the same districts, and one of the Socialist candidates had been put up in an otherwise all Republican district. Nonpartisanship was apparently working, though the idea was still too much for the Herald to grasp. Known Democrats at the Fargo convention had spoken publicly in favor of Republican candidates and vice versa! “Why,” it asked plaintively, “is it the business of a Democrat to interest himself in the selection of Republican candidates?”

The direct primary had been put in place in North Dakota only a few years before, in 1912. Using this new development to take over the existing parties had two main advantages.

First, it allowed the NPL to leverage its numbers for maximum effect. Fewer people voted in the primary election, so it took fewer votes to win. Also, among other Republicans at the time, labeled the “old gang” by the NPL, there was a sharp divide between the Progressives and Stalwarts. This divide split the non-NPL Republicans, further reducing the number of votes it took to win a plurality in the primaries.

The other advantage of taking over the existing parties through the direct primary system is that it allowed the NPL to play on other people’s tribal identity to the existing party system. The state was so Republican that it was almost inconceivable that voters would not support the Nonpartisan League’s Republican candidate for Governor after he won the party primary. The NPL candidates in the general election won not just the votes of the NPL supporters. They benefited from holdover, traditional party-line voters.

The NPL basically became a shadow political party within the established party system. The NPL membership voted for candidates regardless of party, because they were supporting the NPL-endorsed candidate in each race. Once in office, these NPL members’ true loyalty was to the NPL and not to their official parties. NPL legislators met in their own special bipartisan caucus to decide legislative action. They used major party lines just as a tool to get elected and to advance the goals of the NPL. Through this strategy, the NPL managed to seize control of the state government in 1918 and enact the bulk of its platform.

Similar to the way that the Anti-Saloon League played both parties against each other using a traditional balance-of-power role, the NPL also embodied the political credo of the famous rail tycoon Jay Gould: “In a Republican district I was a strong Republican; in a Democratic district I was Democratic, and in doubtful districts I was doubtful. In politics I was an Erie Railroad man all the time.”

By creating a dues-paying membership with its own media source, with zealous political loyalty to the NPL and not the political parties, the NPL created an army of voters who could maximize its leverage by taking advantage of the new direct primary system. It was a great example of strong organization combining with a smart plan to exploit new opportunities and lead to victory.

Lessons for today

In many ways, I think, the emergence of the direct primary inhibited the development of third parties in American history. Along with our first-past-the-post, single-member- districts election system, it stabilized the Democratic/Republican dynamic, despite the fact that the parties have sometimes flipped sides on important issues.

Direct primaries mean that almost all the same intense organization required to establish a new political party can as easily, or even more easily, be used to take control of the existing parties. Winning as a third party requires somewhere around 35 to 50 percent of the general election vote. Winning the primary of the dominant political party in a district requires gaining only about a quarter or less of the votes it would take to win as a third party or independent candidate. If the vote could be properly divided, it would probably take an organization half as many well-directed members to have two candidates win both parties’ nominations in the primary than it would take to get one candidate elected in November as an independent.

Political parties only stand for what their elected representatives stand for. The NPL showed that a well-organized group of voters can use the primary system to reshape one or even both major parties in its own image. After all, farmers were the bulk of North Dakota’s population, so the major political parties should have been very pro-farmer.

About 100 years ago, progressives were a real force in the Republican Party, because that is the party they voted for and ran candidates in. Now progressives are a force in the Democratic Party for the same reason. Neither party was or is inherently progressive. They are only that way because that is the party progressives use to advance their political and policy goals.