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.

2016 Election Preview, part I.

Every election sets the course of history.  At the national level, some presidential elections are more significant than others.  The election of Lincoln in 1860 or FDR in 1932 changed the course of U.S. History.  Other elections, though less dramatic, are no less pivotal.  Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign is not the topic of much historical discussion – but how different would America be today if Bob Dole had defeated him?

The same is true at the state level.  South Dakota has had its fair share of close, competitive general election that set the course of history – from the Populist Andrew E. Lee‘s narrow election as governor in 1896 to George McGovern‘s hard-fought defeat of Joe Bottum in 1962 and John Thune‘s successful challenge of Sen. Tom Daschle, at the time the Senate Minority Leader, in 2004.

The 2016 general election does not offer such compelling candidate matchups; however, it still offers opportunities for history to be made.  Over the next couple of days, a few blog posts will look at the potential “history” that could be made on Tuesday night.


Welcome to SoDak Governors

Why did I create this blog?

One of my hobbies over the past several years has been to study the history of South Dakota’s governors.  I’ve tried to collect as much information about them as I can, looking to published books and articles, unpublished manuscripts and documents, and conversations and questions with former governors, their families, and their staff members.  My involvement with state government and politics has given me the privilege of getting to know quite a few of them.

I also enjoy serving as a board member for the Trail of Governors project in Pierre, which is raising funds to erect life-size bronze statues of each former governor throughout the capital city.  I have helped to draft the short biographical sketches of each governor, which are used at the unveiling ceremonies and on the Trail’s website.  The Trail is a great way to encourage visitors to Pierre to not only visit our state’s capitol building and state memorials, but to learn a little bit about the state’s history.

A few years ago, Dr. Jon Lauck invited me to write an essay for publication in The Plains Political Tradition: Essays on South Dakota Political Culture, Vol. 2.  Lauck, along with Drs. John Miller and Donald Simmons, have edited two excellent editions of these collections of essays on South Dakota’s political history, and a third is forthcoming from South Dakota Historical Society Press.  My article is entitled Leaders in the Land of Infinite Variety: A Collective Portrait of South Dakota’s Governors.  As I wrote in the introduction to that essay:

Since statehood, thirty-one men have served South Dakota’s governor.  Their personal biographies reflect the history of the state, even as their political careers directed it.  A few left an indelible mark on South Dakota.  Others are nearly forgotten by history.  Taken together, the stories of South Dakota’s thirty-one governors create a cumulative portrait of the state’s first 125 years.  The Plains Political Tradition:  Essays on South Dakota Political Culture, Vol. 2, p. 242.

A few months ago, I created a Twitter account, @SoDakGovs.  My goal for that account is to share some of the history I have learned, to retweet interesting historical tidbits tweeted by others, and to promote awareness of the Trail of Governors project.

That is also the goal of this blog.  I would like to have an online platform where I can post information about South Dakota history that exceeds 140 characters.  As I wrote in my essay, we can learn a great deal about South Dakota history through the study of our governors.  I will also branch out from that focus to post information of general historical interest.