In 1972 I had the opportunity of going to my third Republican National Convention. In the “olden days” delegates were selected by “their betters,” the senior elected office holders and party officials, with little input from rank and file Republicans. E. Steves Smith, Republican State Chair, and I thought that there must be a better way of picking delegates.
We came up with an amendment to the state party constitution, put it on the agenda for the state convention, and picked the smallest meeting room in what is now the Ramkota in Pierre. To our surprise, no one came to that meeting, and the amendment was adopted.
Basically, we arranged that in presidential election years, a meeting would be held in each county in the state on a given day in January. On that day, anyone in the state that wanted to support an announced candidate for president, an unannounced candidate, or simply wanted to go to the convention uncommitted to anyone, would gather in the county seat of their home county.
Those folks elected delegates to Pierre for a daylong meeting. In the morning the delegates for each candidate met, with those delegates from each of six party districts to choose nominees, for a final slate of delegates from that district.
These delegates were allowed to cast votes based on the number of votes cast in their home county for the last republican governor candidate in a general election. If a county had cast 12,000 votes in the election for governor and all three delegates came to Pierre, that day, each of those delegate would have 4,000 votes to cast. If the three were not all in Pierre, 12,000 votes were divided by those present. Thus, voting strength of the county delegations reflected the size of the voting population in each county.
In the afternoon all delegates gathered again with others supporting their candidate and chose the final members of the delegation, from those nominated from the district meetings, as well as the position of each member on the June primary ballot.
In 2012 South Dakota had twelve delegates and twelve alternates to be selected for the national convention. There were eleven delegates and twelve alternates to be nominated to go on the ballot in June, the 12th delegate was the chairman chosen by that presidential candidate.
Each delegate chosen for the national convention was obligated by party rules to vote for their candidate for at least two ballots. If their candidate for President withdrew or failed to win by the the third ballot, that delegate or alternate was free to exercise their conscience.
This prevented something called “the unit rule.” In the past state delegations, including South Dakota would—by majority vote—require the entire delegation’s vote would be cast at the national convention for the Presidential choice of the majority. It’s easy to see how a forceful governor or senator or even state party chair could pressure delegates to change their mind, regardless of the vote back home in the primary.
That would have the effect of allowing the back room boys to cut deals to overturn the choices expressed by voters back home.
I had seen this “unit rule” imposed on our delegation for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and was repelled by the ease with which the voters back home were ignored. Barry Goldwater might have excited the passion of insiders—he was a wonderful, decent, intelligent, and principled man —but it turned out that, though he was the best candidate, he could not, and did not, win.
The delegation receiving 20% or more of the republican primary vote sent that percentage of delegates and alternates to the convention.
In 2012, the only candidate to receive more than 20% in the election was Governor Romney and that slate of delegates and alternates went to the convention in Florida.
A clear message was sent by South Dakota republican primary voters. Please reread an earlier blog which quoted part of the Washington Post article outlining presidential candidate Senator Santorum’s appeal.
My letter to the Post suggested that the Senator’s message of promising to turn back the clock was not new, Adolph Hitler was nominated and elected on the same promise, and that, “…if some of the delegates on the Santorum slate from South Dakota were voting in 1932 they would be wearing brown shirts.”
These individuals wanted to turn time back to the 1950s. The time when women knew their place, people went to an acceptable church on Sundays, and black people were educated in segregation for the only kind of life’s work “they were fit for.”
This primary showed quite clearly what South Dakota voters wanted by their choice of delegates.
To me, the rejection of the Santorum slate by nearly 80% of voters showed that his regressive platform and his South Dakota delegates were unacceptable, and perhaps repugnant.
While the party’s system now makes the whole process more democratic (small D), there was an interesting past convention where the “good old boy system” gave South Dakota a chance to make history.
In 1952 Barbara Bates Gunderson, South Dakota’s National Committee Woman, and U.S. Senator Karl Mundt from Madison were delegates due to their status.
Senator Mundt had promised the delegation to Senator Bob Taft from Ohio. At a key point in the balloting, Barbara convinced many in the delegation to switch their support from Taft to Dwight Eisenhower. The timing of her move started a big swing towards General Eisenhower, who went on to become President of the United States. There are more stories spinning out from that moment, and I will share them in future posts.
It occurred to me while I was working on this blog that I had never asked Barbara why she had done this, nor as far as I know had anyone else asked her. It became clear to me, however, as I thought it through. Barbara’s husband Bob, an attorney and the love of her life, had slogged his way across Europe in the war against Hitler under the command of Dwight David Eisenhower.
Senator Mundt, on the other hand, had been an early spokesman for the isolationists who opposed U. S. intervention in Europe. He also was associated with a group known as “the German American Bund” who suggested that Hitler had a reason for what he was doing. Maybe I’ll share some more on that subject sometime in the future as well.