Wisconsin: The Nation’s Presidential Primary Bellwether Since 1972
Wisconsin is the only state to back the eventual nominee from both parties in every cycle since 1972, save for a non-binding Democratic beauty contest primary in 1984
All eyes continue to be on Wisconsin – home to the nation’s only primary election on Tuesday.
Presidential primaries have a rich history in Wisconsin with the Badger State one of just nine to hold a presidential preference vote uninterrupted since the first primaries in 1912 along with California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota.
And when it comes to primaries, Wisconsin also tops another list – all by itself – although its record may fall this cycle.
Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders are both poised to provide much-needed counter punches to respective frontrunners Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on Tuesday. If they do, Wisconsin may be on a very rare track to support presidential candidates who failed to win their party’s nomination.
A year ago, Smart Politics highlighted Wisconsin as one of just nine states to support the eventual Republican nominee in every cycle of the modern primary era (1972+), along with Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Oregon (whether through a primary or caucus preference vote or state convention).
Wisconsin also has (nearly) an unblemished streak since 1972 on the Democratic side, with its single deviation coming with an asterisk.
In 1984, Colorado U.S. Senator Gary Hart narrowly defeated former Vice President Walter Mondale in Wisconsin’s April primary. However, that primary was a ‘beauty contest’ and simply advisory and non-binding.
The actual allocation of delegates to that year’s national convention came through a caucus system with establishment-backed Mondale easily winning both the preference vote and the subsequent delegate count.
In the remaining 10 cycles, Wisconsin Democrats voted for the eventual nominee in its primary each time: George McGovern (1972), Jimmy Carter (1976, 1980), Michael Dukakis (1988), Bill Clinton (1992, 1996), Al Gore (2000), John Kerry (2004), and Barack Obama (2008, 2012).
As a result, no state in the nation can match Wisconsin’s record in backing Republican and Democratic nominees in the modern primary era.
Four other states have two red marks on their resume since 1972:
- Illinois: Ed Muskie (1972) and favorite son Paul Simon (1988)
- Oregon: Frank Church (1976) and Gary Hart (1984)
- Texas: Ronald Reagan (1976) and Hillary Clinton (2008; note: Barack Obama won the Texas caucuses)
- Virginia: Reagan (1976) and Jesse Jackson (1988)
Seven other states backed three losing candidates:
- Florida: George Wallace (1972), Hart (1984), Clinton (2008)
- Maryland: Wallace (1972), Jerry Brown (1976), and Paul Tsongas (1992)
- Montana: Reagan (1976), Church (1976), and Hart (1984)
- Nebraska: Reagan (1976), Church (1976), and Hart (1974)
- New Jersey: Shirley Chisholm (1972), Ted Kennedy (1980), and Clinton (2008)
- New York: Scoop Jackson (1976), Kennedy (1980), and Clinton (2008)
- Ohio: Hubert Humphrey (1972), Hart (1984), and Clinton (2008)
The only other state which failed to support the eventual Democratic nominee only once was Kansas in 1976 when a plurality of caucus goers were ‘uncommitted’ with Jimmy Carter in second. However, Carter did claim 32 of the 34 delegates on the first ballot months later at the party’s national convention.
And while Wisconsin’s nearly perfect track record in the modern primary era is due in part to the fact that the state has not held its contests at the very front of the calendar during this period, it has certainly held meaningful races in many of these cycles, several of which were competitive.
Close Democratic contests include:
- George McGovern’s 7.5-point win over George Wallace in 1972
- Jimmy Carter’s 1.0-point victory over Mo Udall in 1976
- Gary Hart’s 3.3-point win over Walter Mondale in 1984
- Bill Clinton’s 2.7-point win over Jerry Brown in 1992
- John Kerry’s 5.3-point victory of John Edwards in 2004
Republicans have also held three fairly competitive primaries during this period under analysis:
- Ronald Reagan defeated Gerald Ford by 10.9 points in 1976
- Reagan beat George H.W. Bush by 9.8 points in 1980
- Mitt Romney was victorious over Rick Santorum by 7.2 points in 2012
Of course, it hasn’t always been the case that Wisconsinites backed the eventual nominee during the nomination phase. During the early primary era – when many candidates often did not compete in primaries or campaign in such states – the winner of the Badger State primary frequently did not go on to win their party’s nomination.
On the Democratic side, such winners include former Treasury Secretary William McAdoo in 1924, Missouri U.S. Senator James Reed in 1928, Tennessee U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver in 1952 and 1956, favorite son Governor John Reynolds in 1964, and Minnesota U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy in 1968.
In the Republican primary, Wisconsin voters rarely voted for the eventual GOP nominee prior to 1972, instead opting for favorite son U.S. Senator Robert La Follette in 1912, 1916, and 1924, Major General Leonard Wood in 1920, Nebraska U.S. Senator George Norris in 1928 and 1932, Idaho U.S. Senator William Borah in 1936, New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey in 1940, General Douglas MacArthur in 1944, former Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen in 1948, Ohio U.S. Senator Robert Taft in 1952, and favorite son U.S. Representative John Byrnes in 1964.
If Wisconsin does see Cruz and Sanders win its primaries on Tuesday that does not yet mean the state’s streak is dead – particularly in this unpredictable election cycle.
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A Sanders victory here quite likely means the Badger State’s “streak” would be “dead”; even if HRC is forced to step aside due to whatever reasons (as of this posting, the FBI, her most fearsome opponent, even more than Sanders, has yet to request any interviews with her) the party power brokers will never permit this recent convert/interloper – to say nothing of his unabashed “democratic socialist” self-proclamation – to be the titular leader of the party, his impressive poll standings against “Drumpf” and The Hombre from Alberta notwithstanding.
A margin of 9.5% or greater does not seem to make for a “competitive” contest (Reagan v Ford and Reagan v Bush) – though both the 1976 and 1980 R primary elections arguably have been contested and “meaningful”.