TUPPER: SD not as GOP as we're made out to be
If South Dakota is so staunchly Republican, why have its voters kept Tim Johnson, a Democrat, in Congress for 28 consecutive years?
There are 637,882 people old enough to vote in South Dakota, according to 2013 population estimates. Among those voting-age people, 236,682 are registered to vote as Republicans. The other 401,200 are either not registered to vote, or are registered as something other than Republican.
Did you catch that? Republicans in South Dakota are actually outnumbered by people who are not Republicans.
Just 37 percent of voting-age South Dakotans -- only slightly more than one-third -- are registered as Republicans. The other 63 percent are either not registered, or are registered with some other party, or are registered as independents.
Put another way, there are about 1.7 times more South Dakota adults who are not Republicans than there are Republicans.
Critics might say I’m manipulating the numbers by including those not registered to vote in my analysis. So, let’s look at voter registration.
While Republicans are the biggest individual party with 236,682 registered voters, there are 274,109 other voters in South Dakota registered as something besides Republican. Those other voters are Democrats, independents or members of minor parties. Taken together, they outnumber Republicans by 37,427 voters.
Voter registration numbers are indicators of electoral success. That’s why South Dakotans elect mostly Republicans to represent them in local, state and national offices. But voter registration numbers aren’t everything. If they were, I ask again, how could we account for Tim Johnson’s 28 years in Congress? How could we account for other successful South Dakota Democrats like Tom Daschle and George McGovern?
To me, the answer is simple. An unbiased look at all the relevant numbers shows that while the Republican Party is a strong force in South Dakota politics -- indeed, the strongest among the organized political parties -- it’s also weak enough that nearly two-thirds of voting-age South Dakotans have not joined it.
Even the Republican advantage over Democrats in voter registration numbers can’t always guarantee a victory, because not everyone who is registered actually votes. In modern South Dakota general elections, voter turnout has ranged from 50 percent to nearly 80 percent. With registered Republicans outnumbered by other registered voters who are not Republicans, a drop in Republican turnout or a surge in non-Republican turnout can make a difference.
And when those registered voters go into the voting booth, they carry with them the memories of political conversations they’ve had with relatives, friends, neighbors and co-workers leading up to Election Day. The demographics tell us there’s a good chance many of those conversation partners are not Republicans.
Some South Dakotans are afraid to admit they’re anything other than Republican, because they’ve bought into the conventional wisdom that wherever three or more are gathered in our state, non-Republicans are always outnumbered. Some people may even be registered as Republicans only because it’s good for their business or reputation. But when those non-Republicans or marginally committed Republicans go into the safety of the voting booth, they’re free from prying eyes.
That’s where South Dakota’s political identity is truly determined, and it’s where people have cast thousands of votes for Democrats like Johnson, Daschle and McGovern. Their success and the demographics both point to a state that’s more politically diverse than conventional wisdom holds.