Are SD presidential primaries too little, too late?

South Dakotans head to the polls Tuesday, but what they have to say might not matter. For another year, South Dakota's voice in the presidential primary is effectively meaningless. Both former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and businessm...

South Dakota election primaries. (Republic photo illustration)
South Dakota election primaries. (Republic photo illustration)

South Dakotans head to the polls Tuesday, but what they have to say might not matter.

For another year, South Dakota's voice in the presidential primary is effectively meaningless. Both former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and businessman Donald Trump have all but locked up their respective parties' nomination, leaving South Dakotans without a role to play in selecting the candidates for the nation's highest office.

But Davison County's local political party chairmen say that's the nature of living in a small state.

"We shouldn't get too fixated on the presidential race," said Dave Mitchell, chairman of the Davison County Democrats. "Even if it were a close race, the odds of South Dakota's delegation having a big-time impact aren't high because of the size of the state."

And this year's campaign for the Republican and Democratic nominations are anything but close. Clinton is less than 100 pledged delegates short of clinching the nomination, and Trump has already earned a first-ballot nomination from his party.


With the nomination essentially in the bag for both major party candidates prior to the state's last-in-the-nation primary, the South Dakota's impact on the presidential nominating process has had virtually no impact since 1996.

Mitchell's Republican counterpart, John Claggett, agreed that it all comes back to population.

"It would be nice to be in the front-end shuffle and you get a spur in activity, but on the same hand, with the numbers we have in population, I can see why we're where we're at," said Claggett, chairman of the Davison County Republicans.


South Dakota wasn't always one of the last states to conduct its primary. In three presidential elections from 1988 to 1996, the South Dakota presidential primary in South Dakota was held in February.

Prior to the 1988 election, the South Dakota Legislature voted to hold two primaries during presidential election years, with the presidential primary held in February and legislative and local primary in June. In those three election years, South Dakotans had the opportunity to voice their support of a wider swath of candidates on the ballot.

When given the opportunity, South Dakotans pounced on the chance to support three candidates who would not go on to win their party's nomination. In the first year of the early primary, South Dakotans supported former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole and former Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, who would be defeated in the primaries by eventual President George H.W. Bush and former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

In the state's Democratic primary four years later, South Dakota liberals supported former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, who would lose the nomination to President Bill Clinton.


But the early primary did not have the impact the legislature desired. Despite the early primaries giving South Dakotans the opportunity to vote for their first choice rather than a presumptive nominee, the early primary was repealed in 1997 by a group of legislators, including current Gov. Dennis Daugaard and U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds.

"I remember casting that vote, although it was nearly 20 years ago and I don't remember the discussion in detail," Daugaard said. "I think we believed that the state was not getting enough extra attention from candidates to justify the expense of an extra election."

According to a report filed in 2000 by Dale Bertsch, of the state's Legislative Research Council, the three extra elections cost the state a combined total of $1,106,187 for 1988, 1992 and 1996.

Mitchell, who's been an active Democrat in South Dakota since the 1970s, agreed with Daugaard that the early election wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

"The question you ask is, 'What's the point of this and what are we gaining?' " Mitchell said. "The idea that we're going to have all of these media people coming and it will be an economic windfall, none of that materialized."

While the collective cost for the additional elections eclipsed $1 million, Bertsch's report states Dole's 1996 campaign allocated more than $500,000 to the South Dakota primary, but Bertsch said the campaign could not indicate whether the money was actually spent in South Dakota.

The financial impact of the early primary may have been immeasurable, but Bertsch's report highlights some evidence the February primary impacted South Dakotans. In 1988, four presidential candidates visited Pierre, three more came to the state capitol in 1992 and another two candidates arrived in 1996. This year, only Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders visited the Mount Rushmore state.

But even with the opportunity to visit with and choose from a greater selection of candidates, Mitchell said the state's influence in the presidential race isn't strong.


"It really doesn't make a lot of difference where South Dakota is in the sequence in terms of delegate count," Mitchell said. "I mean, we make a big deal out of New Hampshire, but New Hampshire's delegate county is pretty much immaterial."

South Dakota's delegate count in the Democratic primary, including unbound superdelegates, amounts to approximately 0.5 percent of the available delegates who vote to select the nominee at the party's national convention. On the Republican side, South Dakota delegates only make up approximately 1 percent.

"As far as delegate count is concerned, we could have our primary in December, it wouldn't make any difference," Mitchell said.

Despite what little impact South Dakotans may have in the primary process, Mitchell said it does not mean the state is excluded from the political process.

Party delegates still get to attend conventions, where they have some impact on the party's platform, which he said has some impact on the overall presidential race. South Dakotans are also polled routinely throughout the year by the various campaigns prior to the primary season to gauge local thoughts on the different candidates, Mitchell said.

But he did admit political activism in the state may take a hit due to the lateness of the primary.

"I'm sure it has some depressing effect, because everybody that's interested knows what the news is,' Mitchell said. "They know that Trump basically has it locked up because the candidates have all dropped out, and that Clinton is pretty much a foregone conclusion unless something dramatically unusual happens."

Benefits of a late primary

While a presumptive nominee has already been determined before South Dakotans got a chance to vote every year since the return to the late primary in 2000, even in 2008 when Clinton was locked in a close race with President Barack Obama, the local party leaders said there are a handful of benefits to the June primary.

Although Trump has amassed enough delegates for the GOP nomination, South Dakota Republicans will still see Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich on the ballot Tuesday. If any major events happen prior to the primary, Claggett said South Dakota will be one of the few states left to reconsider supporting Trump.

"I think we're a lot more flexible because we haven't made up our minds, so to speak," Claggett said.

Former Democratic State Rep. Quinten Burg, who is hoping to return to Pierre with a State Senate run this year, said the late primary is particularly beneficial to legislative and local candidates.

"It's too hard to run separate primaries, and it's too hard for me to move up the primary for the local candidates and state candidates because you're not out of session yet," Berg said in an interview with The Daily Republic last week. "It seems like it's easier to recruit people after or during the session than it is a few months prior to it."

Currently, local and legislative candidates must file ballot petitions by mid-March, but moving the primary up on the calendar would require legislative candidates to file well in advance of the end of the legislative session in March. Instead, Burg suggested the state could move its primary to the last week in May to avoid conflicting with the delegate-heavy California primary.

But it all comes back to population.

"We're a small state anyway, so we're never going to matter a whole lot," Burg said.

Mitchell agreed, but he said being such a small state offers a silver lining.

"When I lived in Massachusetts, I would have no more imagined Teddy Kennedy coming and having coffee in my house than the man on the moon, but I've had both (former Sen. Tim Johnson) and (former Sen. Tom) Daschle in my house," Mitchell said. "That's the upside of living in a small state."

Related Topics: ELECTION 2016
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