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UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The Wisconsin primary and the Democratic National Committee : a state party struggles against national party rules Wekkin, Gary D.


In 1975 the Wisconsin presidential primary became the center of an internal party dispute between the Democratic National Committee and the state Democratic party of Wisconsin. The cause of the dispute was that one of the Democratic National Committee's delegate selection rules for the 1976 national convention called for Wisconsin's revered 70 year-old "open" presidential primary to be closed to crossover voting. This mandate, which reflected the national committee's fear that Republican and independent crossover voters would boost George Wallace's candidacy or help nominate a weak Democratic candidate, conflicted with the principle tenets of Wisconsin's Progressive, anti-party political culture. Distrust of political parties is widespread in Wisconsin, and the rights of crossover voting and absolute secrecy in the voting booth have been the objects of highly favorable political orientations there ever since the open primary was introduced by the state's most beloved and famous son, Robert M. La Follette, Sr. The resulting states' rights conflict between the Wisconsin and national Democratic parties illustrates the decentralizing effect the federal structure has had upon the national parties, and sheds some light upon the degree to which the power relationship between the DNC and its state components has changed since the Supreme Court's landmark Cousins v. Wigoda (1975) decision. In addition to the conflict between the Wisconsin and national parties, the primary question also produced much disagreement among Wisconsin Democrats, and eventually within the DNC as well. The dissension in the Wisconsin party illustrates Sorauf's point that U.S. political parties are really three parties in one: the party organization, the party-in-the-electorate, and the party-in-the-government. Each of these components of the Wisconsin Democratic party had its own separate interests in the primary dispute, and behaved in conflictual fashion toward each other. The Wisconsin Democratic organization leaders were unable to secure the cooperation of their party's legislative wing in attempting to comply with the DNC's closed primary directive, and were forced to adopt a caucus system of delegate selection instead. The subsequent meaninglessness of the Wisconsin primary engendered conflict within the national Democratic party, which earlier had been united on the necessity of banning crossover voting. As the race for the party's presidential nomination progressed, elements favoring presidential candidates expected to do well in the Wisconsin primary suddenly became amenable to its restoration as the method of selecting the state's delegates. Wisconsin's Democratic Governor, Patrick J. Lucey, hoping to save Wisconsin's tradition and influence the nomination race, formed a coalition of these national party elements which forced the DNC to restore the state's open primary for delegate selection purposes one month before the primary was due to take place. The building of that coalition reveals much about coalition politics, the motivations of politicians, and what politicians do when they must choose between two goods.

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