State Responses to National Democratic Party Reform

By Walz, Jeffrey S.; Comer, John | Political Research Quarterly, March 1999 | Go to article overview

State Responses to National Democratic Party Reform


Walz, Jeffrey S., Comer, John, Political Research Quarterly


This research examines the proliferation of Democratic state presidential preference primaries from 1972-80, an unintended consequence of McGovern-Fraser reforms to delegate selection adopted following the acrimonious 1968 Democratic National Convention. Unlike previous work, which has addressed the primary proliferation qualitatively and in a way that does not permit sorting out the various elements that may underlie the adoption of party reforms in the 1970s, we operationalize and test hypotheses about the influence of several factors-Democratic National Committee directives, party strength and type, partisan control of state government, home-state candidates, and divisive caucuses -on states moving from a caucus/convention arrangement of selecting delegates to a presidential preference primary Our findings suggest that both national party efforts to involve more rank and file in the process and state characteristics predisposed some states to move in the direction of a preference primary rather than continuing with a party caucus/convention. Democratic control of state government, the presence of home-state candidates, and noncompliance with DNC directives were the most powerful forces behind states adopting Democratic presidential preference primaries.

NOTE: An earlier version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, April 18-20, 1996. We would like to thank John Bruce for his helpful comments.

Divisions between Democratic party regulars and insurgent rank and file over the Vietnam War and Hubert Humphrey, the party's presidential nominee in 1968, led to reforms opening the process of delegate selection to the party's national nominating convention. Following the reforms, and perhaps a consequence of them, many states moved from a caucus/convention arrangement of selecting delegates to a presidential preference primary (Reiter 1985; Keeter and Zukin 1983; Shafer 1983; Polsby 1983). Between 1968 and 1980, the number of states with Democratic presidential primaries increased from seventeen to twenty-eight.l The increase meant more Democrats involved in the nominating process, and an end to winning the nomination without contesting any primaries and ignoring the party's rank and file, as Humphrey did in 1968 (Crotty and Jackson 1985).2

The shift to a presidential nominating system dominated by primaries has had considerable impact on both the political process and candidates nominated for president. No longer do primaries serve an "advisory role" to party leaders, as they had from 1912 to 1968 (Geer 1989: 2). Harry Truman may have said it best when he called primaries of the period "eyewash," events with only peripheral importance to the nomination (Polsby 1983: 9). After 1968, Democratic aspirants would have to take primaries seriously. The shift to primaries gave party outsiders an unprecedented chance to run and win. Jimmy Carter's nomination in 1976, culminating in the presidency, would have been impossible under a caucus-dominated system. The changes following 1968 helped another Southern governor, Bill Clinton, win the party's nomination and the White House in 1992. Clearly, the primary dominated system has opened the Democratic party's nominating process where outsiders have a much greater opportunity to succeed.

What pushed a system dominated by caucuses as late as 1968 to one dependent upon primaries by 1980? Were the changes in state procedures for selecting delegates primarily a reflection of national party efforts to involve more rank and file in the process as many maintain (for example, see Aldrich 1980; Lengle and Shafer 1976; Ranney 1978)? Or were the changes a reflection of state characteristics that, in concert with national party directives, predisposed some states to move in the direction of a preference primary rather than continue with a party caucus/convention, as others argue (Shafer 1983; Bode and Casey 1980)? …

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