Detroit — In a state where Democratic Party leaders and union officials were traditionally one and the same - and controlled the party - Michigan Democrats are witnessing a slow return to a more open presidential nominating process. Still, Michigan's Democratic caucus is not as open as the primaries that were held through 1972, and observers are divided on how the hybrid process will affect the outcome of Saturday's voting.
Democratic officials were infuriated in 1972 when hordes of Republicans and independents showed up to vote for George Wallace, who easily defeated the party leaders' preferred candidates, George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey. The party then switched to a caucus, where the bosses could exercise greater control.
Over 1.5 million voters participated in the 1972 primary, but by 1980 - because of an intimidating ``pre-enrollment'' process in place for the caucus - the number of participants dropped to just 16,000. Some of the restrictions were dropped by 1984, and participation jumped to 130,000.
But there were still complaints. One out of 10 polling places was in a union hall. Moreover, voters had to reveal their candidate preferences publicly, often in front of union bosses, by placing a ballot into one of three boxes - one each for Walter Mondale (the party favorite), Gary Hart, or Jesse Jackson.
There will be only one ballot box in tomorrow's voting, and the number of caucus sites has grown from about 300 to 576. Even with these changes, some Democrats are unhappy with the caucus.
``Unfortunately the Democratic caucus is not a good indicator of a [candidate's] popular appeal because you are dealing with a very liberal, traditional party-type person who will go to the polls,'' says Gary Owen, speaker of the Michigan House. ``That doesn't give a fair representation of the electability of the candidates in November.''
Mr. Owen, a supporter of Sen. Albert Gore Jr., complains that the more liberal positions of candidates like Gov. Michael Dukakis and the Rev. Jesse Jackson will strengthen their appeal in the caucus, but leave them ``extremely weak'' in November. ``I am realistic enough to know that traditional liberal philosophy is not going to sell in Michigan in November, and it's not going to sell in the South,'' Owen says.
``That's crazy,'' says Will Robinson, Governor Dukakis's Michigan coordinator, when told of the electability argument. ``I've picked up the exact opposite reasoning as one of the reasons we have attracted so much local support. ... Dukakis is electable.''
Dukakis is not taking his lead in the polls for granted and has added a tougher trade message to his stump remarks, trying to woo labor votes away from Rep. Richard Gephardt.
Mr. Gephardt, who is running third in the polls, has focused his campaign on blue-collar workers and the elderly. His campaign stops have included steel mills, auto plants, and senior-citizen centers.
Mr. Jackson, who has been campaigning in white areas largely ignored in his 1984 election bid, has been pulling in large and enthusiastic crowds all across the state. In opinion polls he is exceeding all expectations here, and his anticipated second-place showing will give him a significant share of Michigan's 151 delegates.
House Speaker Owen admits that Senator Gore got into the state ``real late'' because he focused so much attention on Super Tuesday states. Gore, apparently looking beyond Saturday's contest, in which he is expected to take fourth place, spent much of the week campaigning in Wisconsin, Connecticut, and New York.
Sen. Paul Simon, who finishes last in state polls, recognizes that the top political and labor endorsements are beyond his reach, and a lack of funds limits his exposure to voters. Elliot Jacobson, Senator Simon's state coordinator, says the campaign would be happy to pick up a few delegates and then move on to Wisconsin and New York, where Simon feels he has better prospects.
The Michigan contest, like the Iowa caucus, is viewed here as largely an organizational contest among the top three candidates. With only 5 percent of the caucus sites in locations where voters are used to casting their ballots, the margin of victory will be with whoever can get the most supporters to the polls.