"It was Wisconsin, as a matter of fact, that in 1903 first invented the presidential primary, which so many other states have since copied. And the political philosophy that inspired that revolutionary invention has made and left Wisconsin in political terms an unorganized state, a totally unpredictable state, a state whose primaries have over many quadrennials proved the graveyard of great men's presidential ambitions."
Theodore H. White, The Making of the President 1960
When Theodore White wrote the above, it was a very different political landscape across the United States than the one we have today. When all is said and done, more than three dozen states will have held presidential primaries in 2016. In 1960, only 14 states and the District of Columbia held primaries.
Most state delegations were chosen at state party conventions in those days. A primary's value was more symbolic than actual. In 1960, Wisconsin's primary was the second in the nation, coming four weeks after the New Hampshire primary. John F. Kennedy, from neighboring Massachusetts, easily won the New Hampshire primary as expected. Wisconsin's importance was that it would demonstrate whether Kennedy appealed to voters outside his native region.
Kennedy did win Wisconsin, receiving 56% of the vote, but it was determined that much of his margin in that primary came from heavily Catholic precincts. It would be a month later, when Kennedy trounced Hubert Humphrey in heavily Protestant West Virginia, that he demonstrated conclusively that he could win the popular support of Protestant voters outside of New England.
Still there is little doubt that Kennedy's wave of momentum began in Wisconsin on April 5, 1960.
As we round the stretch and head toward the finish line in Wisconsin two days from now, it is worth reviewing the recent history of the Wisconsin primary because it has been such a maverick state — and if the front–runners in both parties lose there, as polls currently suggest they will, it could change the dynamics of both races.
Wisconsin may still prove to be "the graveyard of great men's presidential ambitions."
When White wrote that 55 years ago, he had no way of knowing that eight years later a president would drop out of the race because of an insurgent challenger (and his own problems with a civil war in Southeast Asia). A few days later — and only two days before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. — the insurgent, Minnesota Sen. Gene McCarthy (the Bernie Sanders of his day), won Wisconsin's primary with 56% of the vote.
"[I]n Wisconsin," White wrote in his book on the 1968 presidential election, "one could see naked the end of the historic Johnson mandate of 1964."
In 1972 Sen. George McGovern used his victory in Wisconsin as his springboard to the nomination, eclipsing pre–Democrat primary campaign front–runner Ed Muskie and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey with 30% of the vote in a 10–candidate field.
In 1976 President Gerald Ford got off to a fast start, winning the first five primaries and the Iowa caucus, prompting many party leaders to openly encourage former California Gov. Ronald Reagan to withdraw prior to the North Carolina primary. If Reagan had withdrawn, it might well have ended his hopes of winning the presidency. But he won North Carolina, and the candidates moved on to Wisconsin two weeks later — even though Reagan had more or less written off Wisconsin because of a money crunch brought on largely by his losing streak in the primaries.
Although momentum was with Reagan after the North Carolina primary, Wisconsin sided with the president. It might well have backed the challenger, who took 44% of the vote, if he had been able to run the kind of advertising campaign that would have been necessary to defeat a sitting president. Reagan went on to win the Texas primary and made a close race of it right up to the party's convention in Kansas City that summer, but many people — myself included — believe the decision to more or less bypass Wisconsin was the greatest mistake Reagan made in the 1976 campaign.
On the Democratic side, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter scored an upset over liberal Mo Udall, who had been counting on Wisconsin's liberal tradition to juice up his campaign.
Instead, Carter won, 36.6% to 35.6%, and the momentum carried to the nomination in July and the presidency in November.
In 1980, Reagan had been going back and forth against George H.W. Bush in the primaries until he won Wisconsin. After that, he seldom lost another presidential primary.
If you're curious as to the kind of effect that Trump's recent gaffe on abortion can have, it might be useful to remember the 1992 Democratic primary in Wisconsin.
Former California Gov. Jerry Brown announced in New York that, if he was the nominee, he would give Rev. Jesse Jackson serious consideration for the running mate slot. Jackson was a controversial figure at the time. When the votes were counted in Wisconsin, Bill Clinton defeated Brown by 37.2% to 34.5%. Clinton won all but two of the remaining electoral contests and claimed the party's nomination that summer.
Wisconsin is a legitimate wild card, capable of producing perhaps the only true political drama until this summer's conventions.
Republican front–runner Donald Trump and Democratic front–runner Hillary Clinton are currently running second in Wisconsin polls. If those polls prove to be correct, it could change the complexion of the races.
As Leo once said on The West Wing, "I'd watch."