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S.D. has little say in picking president Study: State ranks zero for influence

by Terry Woster // Published November 29, 2005 in ArgusLeader.com

PIERRE - South Dakota is irrelevant in the business of presidential elections, but the state has plenty of company, a recent study titled "Who Picks the President'' concluded.

The report, by the nonpartisan group FairVote, looks at how much money was spent and how many visits to each state candidates for president and vice president made during the final five weeks of the 2004 campaign. South Dakota was one of several states with no visits or spending, FairVote concluded.

"South Dakota is completely ignored," FairVote chairman and former Illinois Republican Rep. John Anderson said in a prepared statement. "Long gone are the days when the Mount Rushmore State mattered in presidential races."

The report said spending in Florida alone during what was called the peak campaign season last year was more than the combined spending in 45 other states and the District of Columbia. Florida had 6 percent of the population but got 27 percent of ad money, FairVote said.

Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania combined for a majority of the ad spending and nearly half of all presidential and vice presidential candidate visits, the report said. No money was spent in 23 states during the study period, it said.

The report makes a case for the return of South Dakota's early presidential primary, said a Democratic legislator who remembers seeing then-Illinois Sen. Paul Simon in the 1988 campaign in the state.

"There's really no reason for anyone to come here the way things are,'' said Vermillion state Sen. Ben Nesselhuf.

The state's June primary is too late to attract candidates, he said, and South Dakota's strong tradition of voting Republican in presidential elections, combined with a low number of presidential electors, means there's not much for candidates to fight about late in a campaign.

"At least when we had an early primary, in February, candidates stopped here,'' Nesselhuf said. "I remember going to see (Illinois Democrat Sen.) Paul Simon, and I was wearing a Simon-style bow tie and a button. It was a defining moment, to actually see a presidential candidate. ...

"I think the early primary paid dividends.''
Republican Rep. Tom Hills of Spearfish said he doubts South Dakota will return to the early primary, although he recalled that several presidential contenders from the major political parties visited Black Hills State University while he was a political science professor. Among the visitors were Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and former Republican President George Bush, then vice president, and Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo.

"It was exciting to have them. I liked that early primary,'' Hills said.

He doesn't dispute the FairVote conclusion that the state isn't a player in presidential politics, and he thinks changing that would be difficult.

"I'd vote for a bill for the early primary, but I don't think we'll see one,'' Hills said. "The only other thing, and something I'd like to see, would be if we had a regional primary, like South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Minnesota and Nebraska. Then I think people would show up. If you put enough of us in the same kettle, then I think they'd be interested.''

South Dakota had a February presidential primary in 1988, 1992 and 1996. Many candidates from both parties visited the state early, but their interest waned in later primaries, and the cost - about $400,000 - combined with that lack of interest prompted lawmakers to scrap the early vote.

A bill to revive the early primary failed in its first committee test in the 2004 session. Nesselhuf was among four committee members who supported it. Seven lawmakers opposed it.

Bill Peterson of Sioux Falls, former Republican lawmaker who tried to revive the early primary, argued at the time that it was a way for South Dakotans to be involved in the process of at least selecting political party candidates for president.

FairVote created an attention index, using a base of 1, a condition in which every voter in every state received equal attention. Only 14 states scored higher than 1, while 19 states, including South Dakota, had a zero, "indicating their irrelevance in the election,'' FairVote concluded.

FairVote describes itself as a nonprofit organization that studies the effect of electoral rules and systems on turnout, representation and electoral competition.

Reach Terry Woster at 605-224-2760.