N.D. primaries never got noticedWith all of the excitement of Republican primary contests clogging the media, North Dakota partisans must feel lost in the shuffle. Don’t feel badly. We had presidential primaries once. They were a flop.
By: Lloyd Omdahl, The Jamestown Sun
With all of the excitement of Republican primary contests clogging the media, North Dakota partisans must feel lost in the shuffle. Don’t feel badly. We had presidential primaries once. They were a flop.
In response to the boss politics that dominated major cities in the late 1800s, a reform movement swept the country, seizing control of the political processes. It was really an era of a significant “power to the people” change in our political history.
The initiative and referendum were passed so people could bypass corrupt legislatures. Presidential primaries were launched to give the people a direct voice in the selection of presidential candidates.
Since North Dakota had been in the grips of the corrupt Alexander McKenzie machine since territorial days, progressive Republicans and Democrats joined forces to elect legislators and a governor committed to these reforms. They adopted the initiative and referendum in 1907 and the presidential primary in 1911.
(In 1919, the Nonpartisan League added the provision to recall public officials and the first users were the opponents of the NPL who recalled NPL officeholders Governor Lynn Frazier, Attorney General William Lembke and Agriculture Commissioner John Hagen.)
We held three presidential primary elections — 1912, 1916 and 1920. In order to get the preferences known before the national conventions, the primaries were held as special elections in March.
According to North Dakota Votes, a compilation of the UND Bureau of Governmental Affairs, in the 1912 Republican primary, Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin outpolled Theodore Roosevelt 57 to 40 percent with incumbent President Howard Taft attracting only three percent. Gov. John Burke ran unopposed as a favorite son in the Democratic primary.
In the 1916 Republican primary, Henry Estabrooke was defeated by Robert LaFollette by 70 to 30 percent. Incumbent President Woodrow Wilson had no opposition in the Democratic primary but the Socialists celebrated a contest between Arthur LeSueur and Allen Benson, with LeSueur winning handily.
In the 1920 primary, Republicans had a 3-way contest involving Hiram Johnson, Leonard Wood and Frank Lowden. Johnson ran away with 96 percent of the vote. In the Democratic primary, William Jennings Bryan drubbed William McAdoo 87 to 13 percent. The Socialists had abandoned the field.
After three attempts to draw the national spotlight to the North Dakota presidential primaries, we gave up and repealed the legislation for several reasons.
After the big turnout of 65,000 in 1912, voter participation dwindled to 32,000 by 1920. After all, who were Henry Seabrook and William McAdoo that we should hitch up the horses to go three miles through the March snow banks to demonstrate our support?
The low turnout made the per-ballot cost of conducting a special election too expensive for frugal North Dakotans. Apparently, the presidential primaries were a luxury we couldn’t afford.
Worst of all, the presidential candidates didn’t show up in an out-of-the-way state with only a handful of convention delegates at stake. No candidates meant no press and publicity was supposed to be one of the big benefits.
Even though the open primary made North Dakota the “land of opportunity” for all aspiring politicians for 100 years, the endorsing convention has remained the main route to nominations. The Republican primary was utilized for state offices for 40 years when the regular Republicans did battle in the primaries with the Nonpartisan League but almost all of these candidates were endorsed by conventions.
So, in the final analysis, North Dakota’s relationship with presidential primaries was a brief flirtation that never evolved into a genuine love affair. Besides, the bosses left long ago so the cure for corruption remains even though the disease is gone.
(Lloyd Omdahl, of Grand Forks, is a former lieutenant governor, state tax commissioner and state budget director)