Stepping Out of the Ivory Tower: A Political Scientist Goes to the Wisconsin Democratic Convention

This weekend I attended the Wisconsin state Democratic convention in a participant-observer capacity. I obtained delegate credentials, which in this case meant basically that I paid a registration fee and joined the state party. The draw of the convention was a competitive race to chair the state party. One of the candidates was my former student, Jason Rae. The big story from the WisDems meeting in the national media has been the presidential straw poll. But during the event itself, the chair’s race was the focal point. Supporters of the two major candidates wore t-shirts and stickers – it looked like a race for an actual political office rather than an organizational position.

I’ve expressed reservations in the past about combining activism and scholarship, and I still have them. But I felt, and still feel, like participating in the process in this was is still compatible with being critical of both parties, and the leaders they elect, from an institutional perspective.

The convention started on Friday afternoon and ended on Saturday afternoon, after delegates lined up for nearly three hours to cast secret ballots for chair. Rae ended up losing to Sheboygan-area community activist Martha Laning in a race that probably warrants a blog post all its own (by someone who knows more than I do about state politics). I wasn’t able to attend everything, but I went to new delegate orientation (which was standing room only in a room filled to capacity), heard the speeches from the candidates for state party offices, and participated in the voting process.

After this brief and partial immersion, I have a sense of optimism about the potential compatibility of political science and “real world” politics. Even before this recent round of painful criticism of academic political science, one of the complaints often aimed at political scientists from journalists and practitioners is that our ideas and models don’t have any application outside of academic journals. My experience this weekend suggested the opposite – my academic training offered context for what I observed. The developments of the convention also inspired ideas for what I think would be interesting political science questions. Things like the relationship between national and state parties, political strategy, and party processes hold interest for scholars and activists alike, and the scholarly frameworks I’m familiar with seemed meaningful and interesting when applied to the state party meeting.

Nation, state, city

Intense political contests have a way of highlighting previously obscure institutional rules. Two such rules repeated came up during my time at the convention – during new delegate orientation, on the convention floor after the speeches, and in various conversations among delegates. One is that the chair and vice-chair of each state party must be of opposite genders. If, as was the case here, there are two main candidates running, one from each gender, then the race for vice chair is essentially rendered meaningless; if the male candidate won, the female vice chair candidate would take the position, and vice versa. This rule comes from the Democratic National Committee and applies to every state party in the country.

The other rule that drew attention – including some questions about how to change it – is the rule that the winner of the state chair’s race is the one with the most votes – no run-offs in the event of a multi-candidate race, etc. In contrast with the gender requirement, this is a state rule. Most state parties don’t even have an open election process for chair – more on that later.

In the discussion about the gender rule, as well as the explanation of how delegates will be chosen for the 2016 DNC (which will happen at next year’s state convention in Green Bay), I saw vestiges of the many efforts during twentieth century by the national party to standardize and regulate state parties. The McGovern-Fraser reforms are the most well-known, and probably constitute the clearest effort to ensure diversity among national convention delegates. But the struggle over autonomy for state parties also dates back to the 1940s and 1950s, and questions that arose over seating delegates who had opposed the party over the civil rights platform introduced in 1948. I especially thought of the 1950s fights over “loyalty pledges” when we learned at new delegate orientation that in order to be a delegate to the DNC, one need not be a member of the state party- but must sign a pledge stating support for the party’s policies.

Geographical divisions within the state were also a consistent theme. At new delegate training, there were no fewer than five references to tension between Milwaukee and the rest of the state. The presenter began by talking about the state convention and mentioned that “contrary to rumors, it is not always held in Milwaukee.” Jason Rae’s introduction on the convention floor began with a description of his roots in northern Wisconsin, and he was presented as a Democrat who doesn’t think that Milwaukee and Madison should tell everyone what to do. (Although Rae actually lives in Milwaukee.) Although this might mostly sound like elite squabbling, when it comes to campaign strategy and the allocation of party resources, these divisions could have real implications for politics and policy. They also echo the kinds of concerns that drove the debate about Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy, and the questions about Democratic support and strategy in rural areas throughout the country.


Alongside tables for Russ Feingold, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders, each candidate for state chair had a table in the exhibit area .

Party strategy

Through out the convention, I was also reminded of Phil Klinkner’s book The Losing Parties, which explains how parties respond and rebuild after losing the White House. A similar sense of intense debate over what went wrong and what to do next pervaded this meeting, especially the chair’s race. One way this manifested was in the discussions about messaging strategy and outreach to younger voters; the Rae camp emphasized improving the party’s social media presence and electronic messaging capabilities. Not everyone agrees that this should be a priority. The legacy of the outgoing party chair, Mike Tate, was also an important question – not surprisingly, some people blame him for the party’s repeated losses at the state level – 2 gubernatorial races, the 2012 recall, and heavy losses in the state legislature.

One of the interesting questions that comes out of this is how candidates signal continuity and change without the help of party labels – or even the kinds of intra-party factions that are easy to forge and sustain at the national level. Minority parties in medium-sized states can hardly afford to split into factions, yet their out-party status is likely to inspire vigorous disagreement about strategy and direction. And in the absence of widely understood labels, this disagreement can easily become focused on personalities.

What does it mean to be a political party?

One of the compelling reasons for me to experience party politics on the ground is that I’m interested in the conceptual question of what a political party is, and in understanding the role of parties as organizations. What I observed certainly underscored the Grossmann and Hopkins idea of the Democrats as a party organized around groups – the state party caucus list reads like a list of the so-called “Obama coalition” of women, labor, LGBT citizens, and several racial and ethnic minority groups. While the entire exercise was a reflection on the importance of the party organization as its own distinct entity, the ultimate result of the contested chair’s race might have come down to the endorsement from public employees union AFCSME. At the same time, I left confident that my own preferred definition of parties as formal and informal processes that allow coalitions to stay together is not so far off base.

The chair election also made me think of the debate over how “small-ddemocratic party processes should be. Very few states have an election for the state chair and vice chair. I would describe the Wisconsin process as open, but made me think about the bigger picture of what it means for an organization to be democratic. The requirements for becoming a delegate were relatively few and all official delegates were able to vote in the chair’s race. Yet the actual profile of the delegates (from what I could tell) matched the profile of “likely voters” – older, whiter, and higher SES than the general public. In order to attend the convention, one would need the means to travel to Milwaukee and pay the registration and membership dues- and access to information about where and when the convention would be held. You could certainly make the case that it’s perfectly fair for party processes to be limited to those who can contribute to the organization, or that the costs of trying to broaden participation would outweigh the potential benefits. But it nevertheless opens up the question of how to apply a standard of democracy to internal party politics.

Despite taking place in the middle of a heavily Democratic, majority-minority city (actually in a casino owned by a Native American community), the convention consisted of mostly white attendees served by a mostly minority hospitality staff – a situation as familiar as it is lamentable. On the second day of the convention, one of the staff asked a fellow attendee, in the restroom, what the event was. The convention delegate responded that it was a meeting of the state Democratic Party. The woman charged with keeping the bathroom clean for us raised her hands in the air and did what I can only describe as a small dance of joy.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.