The first South Dakota primary election that caught my attention involved Bobby Kennedy running for president.
Kennedy ran in 1968. I was 24 years old, able to vote for president for the first time. Not registered with a political party, I couldn’t vote in the June primary that year. Not that interested in politics to that point, I paid attention because the newspaper assigned me to photograph Kennedy at the Sioux Falls airport and a downtown rally. The crowd, the crush, the security, the campaign jet, all of it was new and exciting. I recall Kennedy, who had 11 children, telling folks at the rally that his family really, really supported dairy farmers.
South Dakota’s primary over the years seldom received much presidential notice. Lumped with California and its lode of delegates, my home state struggled for visibility. Iowa had the first caucuses. New Hampshire had the first go-to-the-polling-place primary. A bunch of other states had their primaries between February and June. South Dakota tagged along later.
As I got into government coverage with the wire service, I grew to envy political reporters in Iowa and New Hampshire. They got the good candidates and political activity. Their states were no more representative of the nation than South Dakota. They were simply first. Candidates paid attention. Being a political reporter in such an atmosphere had to be an absolute blast.
In the middle 1980s, South Dakota decided to crash the early-primary party. Hoping to bring the Iowa/New Hampshire kind of candidate attention and media, the Legislature created the early voting scene. South Dakota couldn’t be as early as Iowa or New Hampshire, but a late-February presidential primary let the state take cuts in line. The candidates responded, for a couple of election seasons.
Many of the presidential hopefuls made campaign swings through South Dakota at first, braving the winter weather and sometimes difficult travel arrangements. They were chasing votes, sure, but mostly they were chasing national headlines. South Dakota, not unlike Iowa or New Hampshire, is a relatively small state, but with a February primary, it drew candidates, reporters and the rest of the circus.
Folks like George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole showed up in 1988. I recall Bush making a quick stop in Pierre during the legislative session. I was in the pack of reporters being herded through a side door in the Capitol basement. When I tried to break away to take my seat in the House press box, the Secret Service got pretty excited. I might owe my freedom to then-Lt. Gov. Walt Miller, who talked the security detail down. Although I was a news reporter, he said I probably wasn’t a major threat to law and order.
Many candidates showed up again in 1992. Candidate Bill Clinton’s wife, Hillary, made a stop in the Capitol, headband and all. I was about four rows of reporters away from her when she did a short press availability in the hallway above the fourth-floor staircase.
The magic kind of wore off after that. Iowa and New Hampshire were never going to let South Dakota jump line ahead of them. Besides that, the concept of Super Tuesday was catching fire. Groups of states, many of them in the South, were sharing the same early-March primary date, which created opportunities for candidates to grab headlines and delegates in a bunch. Many bypassed South Dakota to compete a week or two later in Super Tuesdays. By 1996, legislators decided the benefits of an early primary fell short of the costs. South Dakota got rid of it.
Many primaries over my 40 years of reporting blur together. I do remember the early presidential ones. I remember that first one in 1968. And I can’t forget the one in 1978. Working for the wire service, I called the wrong winner in the Democrat primary for governor. A human error in the ballot counting contributed to my screw-up, but I should have seen that the numbers didn’t add up. The buck stopped with me.
As I watched the mess that the Iowa caucus vote counting became, I could only think, “Wow, I wish there’d been an app to blame things on back in 1978.’’