Next week, the 2016 presidential primary, now running on fumes, will sputter to a stop. The three remaining candidates will converge on California and say their good-byes, or drop a teaser if they plan to come back to bug us again in the fall. California, with its 475 Democratic delegates, isn’t the only state voting on Tuesday, however. There are New Jersey and New Mexico. There is Montana. And then there are the Dakotas, which are so accustomed to getting ignored during elections that all stories about their primaries have started to blend together.
“Once upon a time,” a 2004 story in the Bismarck Tribune began, “about the only attention lonely little North Dakota got from presidential contenders was a glance out the window as their planes flew over the state en route to populous destinations with far more electoral votes.” In 1987, the New York Times noted that “Presidential candidates used to wave at South Dakota from 35,000 feet, on their way to the big-time primaries in states like California and New Jersey.”
It’s not just presidential candidates — South Dakota was the last state to which Obama made an official visit as president, barely a year before his last term was set to end. “I was saving the best for last,” he explained after finally arriving. Even South Dakota’s tourism office jokes about the state’s reputation. After conducting a focus group in which one person said, “My friends would think I’m crazy to go to either of the Dakotas, because they probably just think it’s a barren wasteland,” the tourism office made an ad that asked the question, “Why die on Mars when you can live in South Dakota?”
This year, with the Republican and Democratic primaries mostly resolved — or at least focused on other states — the race feels far away once again, even if voters there have been dealing with the nonstop national press coverage just like the rest of us. David Wiltse, a political science professor at the University of South Dakota, says that the election doesn’t have much of a presence, as far as he’s been able to tell. He can’t recall seeing a single campaign sign.
“It just doesn’t seem like the excitement’s out there,” one county auditor told a local news station, describing how few absentee ballots he’s seen this year. “I hope I’m wrong.”
Visits from candidates have been somewhat scarce. Bernie Sanders has made a couple of stops in both states, visiting a few Native American reservations and holding some of his characteristically robust rallies, and Bill Clinton has subbed in for Hillary. Republicans have been nearly nonexistent, thanks in part to the fact that the state party didn’t hold a primary, caucus, or straw poll this year, prompting perhaps the best headline about the state’s presidential woes: “Fessenden Man Questions North Dakota’s Decision To Skip Presidential Primary.”
Since North and South Dakota are dependably red states, the Democratic contests usually get even less attention. One headline in the Tribune had particularly despondent undertones about this year’s election: “Why do Sanders and Clinton care about North Dakota?”
The two states have tried to think up novel ways of tempting presidential candidates to visit. Before the 1988 presidential primary, South Dakota decided to go rogue and move its primaries from June to late winter, trying to help the state compete with electoral early birds like Iowa and New Hampshire. At first, the plan seemed to work — ”We’ve got counties writing to candidates, asking them to come out, and you’ve got candidates writing back and saying, ’sure,’” the Democratic state party director told the Times in 1987. As these candidates arrived, they debuted new pandering lines. “It’s good to be back in South Dakota, where you can say ’barrows and gilts,’ and people don’t think you’re talking about some fancy Boston law firm,” Tom Harkin said during a debate in 1992. Then-Arkansas governor Bill Clinton noted, “I wish my state bordered South Dakota.”
Things didn’t turn out quite as thrilling as voters hoped. The state was still competing against bigger states for candidates’ attention, and national reporters weren’t flocking to visit, either. Another Democratic state official told the Times, “I think we get a better draw for the opening day of prairie dog season.” On top of the fact that the primary was starting to feel like a birthday party to which no one shows up, it was also expensive. South Dakota was still holding a primary in June for state and local races, which meant spending money on two elections — and forcing voters to head to the polls at least three times in a year. If that didn’t hurt bad enough, the state also failed to pick a single winner during its time in the spotlight.
The plan failed, and South Dakota’s primary returned to June; 20 years later, it remains in June. North Dakota flirted with its own taste of primary power in 2004 by moving its caucuses to February, but the promotion was short-lived.
Although there is little mystery in the final result of this primary season, South Dakota can look forward to a somewhat suspenseful Democratic primary within the state itself. Local political analyst Bob Burns notes that the state doesn’t have open primaries, but that registered independents are allowed to vote in the rural Democratic contest — although independents in the state mostly lean Republican. This stew of factors could make things interesting. Burns imagines that about 30 to 35 percent of eligible voters might turn out.
And what about the general election? Do these states have any chance of getting attention this fall? Judging from past precedent — and their cumulative six Electoral College votes — no. (And for those crossing their fingers and hoping that the Republican presidential pick will make the state competitive, Wiltse says don’t hold your breath. “I would be very surprised if Donald Trump were to lose this state,” he says.)
But it’s not too early to start planning for the next president. Maybe it’s time for all of the states certain to be ignored this fall to band together and put together an itinerary for a presidential road trip. It would at least give politicians’ wrists a break from all that waving from planes.