2016 Election Preview: Will SD continue Republican streak?


This is the second of several posts previewing the Tuesday election through a historical lens.  The first part was an introduction.

The 2016 presidential election is the 32nd since South Dakota became a state in 1889.  In that time, South Dakota has cast its electors for the Republican nominee for president 28 times.  In only four elections has South Dakota supported the Democratic nominee, including one instance in 1896 when the Democrats and Populists ran a joint or “fusion” ticket.

Could 2016 be the fifth time that a Democrat carries South Dakota?

It seems unlikely.

According to the KELOLAND/Mason-Dixon poll, the Republican ticket of Donald Trump and Mike Pence leads Democrats Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine 44% to 37%, with Libertarians Gary Johnson and William Weld winning 7%.  A more recent poll by Nielson Brothers, a local firm, indicates that Trump/Pence leads Clinton/Kaine 52% to 36%.

FiveThirtyEight, the renowned statistical forecasting site now under the auspices of ESPN, gives Mr. Trump a 95.4% chance of carrying South Dakota, and predicts a result of Trump 53.8%, Clinton 36.7%, and Johnson 7.9%.  (The FiveThirtyEight predictions are as of 2 PM on November 6; they fluctuate often.)

South Dakota has supported the Democratic nominee in four elections, each more than half a century ago:

  • In 1896, South Dakota narrowly supported Democrats William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska and Arthur Sewell of Maine.  Bryan was also the nominee of the Populist Party, and it was this nomination that carried him to victory in South Dakota.  That same year, South Dakota elected its only Populist governor, Andrew E. Lee and several other Populist officials.  The Bryan/Sewell ticket was defeated nationally by Republican Governor William McKinley of Ohio and Garret A. Hobart of New Jersey.
  • In both 1932 and 1936, South Dakota supported the Democratic ticket of Franklin Delano Roosevelt of New York and John Nance Garner of Texas.  The depths of the Great Depression hit South Dakota particularly hard, as the state was already suffering from a farm crisis that was exacerbated by plummeting crop values after the stock market crash, as well as record-setting droughts and a grasshopper infestation.  The Roosevelt/Garner ticket defeated President Hoover and Vice President Curtis in 1932, and then rode the success of the New Deal program to a massive reelection victory in 1936 over Kansas Governor Alfred M. Landon and newspaper publisher Frank Knox – the Landon/Knox ticket carried only Maine and Vermont.
  • Finally, in 1964, South Dakota supported the Democratic ticket of President Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas and U.S. Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota.  Johnson had become president nearly a year earlier after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  He won a landslide victory over the conservative Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, whom Johnson successfully portrayed as being too extreme to be elected.  South Dakota also certainly was swayed to support Johnson’s running mate, Senator Humphrey, who although representing Minnesota was a native of Doland, South Dakota and whose family operated Humphrey Drug in Huron, South Dakota.

To put the South Dakota contest in context, here is a list of each presidential election in South Dakota, ranked by the margin by which the Republican ticket won the state over the nearest runner-up:


(see notes regarding this chart at the end of the post)

On average, a winning Republican ticket in South Dakota has won 55.49% of the vote, and prevailed over the nearest opponent by 15.41%.  If the FiveThirtyEight prediction is correct, Trump/Pence will be just below the average vote share with 53.8%, but just above the average margin with 17.1%.  (The reason for the discrepancy is that the Libertarian Johnson/Weld ticket is presumably drawing votes from the Republican ticket.)

And, although the polling and predictions favor a Trump victory in South Dakota, it is worth noting that South Dakota, for a Republican state, has been relatively friendly to the Clintons.  In both 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton lost the state by less than 4%.  In fact, Clinton’s final campaign stop in 1996 was in Brandon.  In 2008, Hillary Clinton won the South Dakota primary, even as the national momentum was with Barack Obama.  And this year, Secretary Clinton again won the primary, although it came after she had all but clinched the Democratic nomination.

Of course, the fact that South Dakota is unlikely to make history in the 2016 presidential election does not mean that the election itself will not be historic.  If Secretary Clinton is elected, she will of course be the first woman to serve as President, an important historical milestone.  Trump’s election would be without historical parallel – he would be the first president without experience as an elected or high-ranking military official.  Melania Trump would be the second foreign-born First Lady, following Louisa Adams (Mrs. John Quincy Adams), who was born in the United Kingdom.


Notes on the chart:

  • Third party tickets are only listed if they received at least 5% of the vote in South Dakota.  For that reason, many of the results listed do not total to 100%.
  • In 1912, the national election was a three-way contest between Republican incumbent William Howard Taft, former President Theodore Roosevelt running as a Progressive, and Democratic Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey.  In South Dakota, however, the Republican Party was controlled by pro-Roosevelt forces, who contrived to have the Progressive Roosevelt ticket nominated as the state’s official Republican ticket, therefore depriving Taft of a place on the ticket.  
  • In 1924, the Progressive LaFollette/Wheeler ticket finished ahead of the Democratic ticket of Davis/Bryan, and it is the Republican ticket’s margin over LaFollette that is reflected on the chart.  LaFollette only carried his home state of Wisconsin but ran strong in other midwestern states.
  • All South Dakota presidential election results are taken from Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.