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Robin Huebner reports: ND's place in presidential primary history

FARGO – As the 2016 presidential primary season kicks off tonight with the Iowa caucuses, North Dakotans can lay claim to an important, but little known political distinction. On March 19, 1912, North Dakota held the first ever truly contested U.S. presidential primary in which voters, not party insiders, could directly express support for a candidate. It was the first of 13 presidential primaries to be held that year.

Geoffrey Cowan, author of a new book about the formation of the presidential primary, says the move was sparked, in part, by a New York politician often considered to be "a North Dakota guy."

After cattle ranching in western North Dakota in the 1880's and serving as president from 1901 to 1909, Theodore Roosevelt had come out of retirement to challenge his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, for the Republican Party nomination. While party leaders wanted Taft, Roosevelt wanted the presidency back.

Roosevelt arrives for the laying of the cornerstone for a Carnegie Library at Fargo College, September 5, 1910. NDSU Archives.

"Roosevelt realizes he can't get the nomination the old-fashioned way, so he embraces the idea of the primary," said Cowan, a professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and author of "Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary."

Cowan says Roosevelt wasn't originally in favor of primaries and wasn't inherently a supporter of democracy.

"Then in the campaign it became an issue, and suddenly, he became a big believer that it was to his benefit," Cowan said.

Roosevelt and Taft weren't the only Republican candidates in that North Dakota primary nearly 104 years ago. Robert La Follette, a U.S. senator from Wisconsin seen as a progressive candidate, was also in the mix.

Roosevelt thought he had a lock on the state, but La Follette came out on top. Roosevelt lost three more primaries but easily won the next nine, leading him to believe he was entitled to the Republican nomination. Party leaders chose Taft instead, prompting delegates and Roosevelt to march out of the national convention in Chicago and begin forming a new, progressive Bull Moose Party.

Six weeks later, as the Bull Moose Party stood ready for its convention, Roosevelt made a move he thought would bring conservative white Southerners to his side. He banned Southern black delegates from being seated at the convention.

"It didn't help him," Cowan said.

In the general election, Roosevelt and Taft split the vote, allowing Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win, and the Bull Moose Party disbanded not long after.

Primary or caucus?

North Dakota decided to discontinue holding a presidential primary and return to the caucus system in 1935.

"That means North Dakota has even less of a role in primary races than ever," said Michael Lansing, an author and associate professor of history at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. "The same is true of many Upper Midwest states," he added.

Minnesota went back and forth between primaries and caucuses multiple times over a half century, before settling back on the caucus system in 1959.

In most cases, Lansing said, the changes were made in an attempt to boost a particular candidate's chances.

For example, Minnesota went to a primary system in 1949 and scheduled the contest early on to help give centrist Republican Harold Stassen a good start.

"States and parties began manipulating the process and when it was held," Lansing said.

Most states now hold presidential primaries, leaving North Dakota and Minnesota among only a handful that hold caucuses. Lansing said in Minnesota's case, it's a contradiction of sorts.

"The state has a reputation as being progressive, with high voter participation, but has this retrograde system," Lansing said.

While many people consider the caucus system to be a grassroots, neighborly approach to supporting a presidential candidate, Lansing thinks the process is easily manipulated by political parties and is often confusing.

"The typical American voter doesn't understand how they work," he said.

Lansing says he thinks Minnesota should instead adopt a direct primary because it would engage more people, but there have been no challenges to the caucus system there or in North Dakota.

"We bought it hook, line and sinker that the caucus is more reflective of our political views," Lansing said, adding he's less convinced of that now than ever.

Minnesota's caucus, and the North Dakota Republican party caucus, will be held along with numerous other state contests on Super Tuesday, March 1. North Dakota's Democratic party caucuses are scheduled for June 7.

The current makeup of presidential candidates could mean more influence for both states down the stretch, according to Lansing.

"The longer the nomination remains unclear, the more important the later caucuses and primaries become," he said.

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