SOME 13 MONTHS before the Democrats will meet in convention assembled in San Francisco, the Wisconsin Democratic Party is holding a straw poll at its state convention today. There's nothing illegal about this: it doesn't violate the law or the Democratic Party rules. If you wanted to get 20 voters together in your living room, you could hold a straw poll yourself. The difference is that lots of reporters and some of the candidates' leading operatives will be out in Milwaukee observing or trying to influence the Wisconsin straw poll; and unless your living room is in New Hampshire or some other politically strategic jurisdiction, you're unlikely to get the same attendance at yours.
There's something ludicrous about how the selection of presidential nominees keeps getting shoved back earlier and earlier every four years. There has already been one straw poll in Massachusetts, and there will be more after Wisconsin, including one in Florida. No one wanted this to happen, and the national Democratic Party tried to confine the selection process to a period beginning next February. Yet we have straw polls much earlier, because state party organizations want more influence, and can exert it only before the primaries begin. Many of the same political scientists who have called for greater participation by state and local party leaders have also called for a shortening of the whole process; unfortunately, these goals have proved to be antithetical.
Of course, the parties don't look like the stereotypes of yore. At the Massachusetts state convention in Springfield, you could see a few beefy old ward-heeler types, but the tone was set by advocates of the nuclear freeze and union leaders who voted for "jobs" rather than any candidate. There just aren't very many old-style machine politicians in the Democratic Party, and those who remain are interested in really important things, like which Chicago alderman will chair the zoning committee, not in who is president. The party's ranks in most states are filled with veterans of campaigns for candidates like Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern--not the practical-minded old pros, interested only in maximizing the party's vote, whom the theorists wanted back in the national conventions. So in Wisconsin some candidates--Reubin Askew, John Glenn, Ernest Hollings--have declined to compete, because they think the party activists will find them insufficiently liberal.
Because nearly half the Democratic delegates will be chosen in a few weeks after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary early next year, these state-party straw polls may end up serving the function that the early contests used to serve: winnowing out the field. So the Wisconsin straw poll is being billed as a contest to see whether Alan Cranston or Gary Hart is the major challenger on the left to Walter Mondale. Yet no one seems to have given much thought to whether it's a good idea for activists like those in Wisconsin or Florida to determine, on the basis of information which seems limited, who should be considered a serious contender for the Democratic nomination.