RAPID CITY, S.D. – After countless primary elections with outcomes that could have been predicted before a ballot was even cast, the contest Tuesday in South Dakota stands out for what’s missing: A foregone conclusion.
“Everybody is in the same quandary with how is this going to work,” said Elizabeth Smith, an associate political science professor at the University of South Dakota. “What kind of predictors are we going to see? What should we look for? It is very, very difficult to know.”
There are no competitive presidential primary elections to use as a measure here, and the limited polling of the state projected vastly different outcomes. A survey Monday from New Hampshire-based American Research Group showed a blowout for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, while a poll released in April by Dakota Wesleyan University found Sen. Barack Obama ahead by 12 points.
The state’s demographics – white, older and working class – would seem to favor Clinton. But Obama won endorsements from top Democratic leaders, including former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Sen. Tim Johnson, and hired their key organizers who know the state well.
Given a choice between Montana and South Dakota, Clinton advisers say they like their chances better in the latter, where at least one member of the Clinton family has campaigned every day for the last several days. Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe told donors recently that the race in both states were tight, but “we’re looking a little better in South Dakota.”
Obama aides agree: South Dakota is a tougher fight for the Illinois senator. But he is nonetheless looking for one win, if not two, after several overwhelming primary election defeats in recent months.
With the nomination seemingly set — and only 15 delegates at stake in South Dakota – a victory here is as much about bragging rights as anything else.
Here is what South Dakota insiders will be watching for:
Split time zones
The eastern half of the state sits in the Central Time zone and the west is in the Mountain Time zone. The polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. local time, but the Secretary of State's office will not release any results until after all the polls close statewide at 8 p.m. Central Time.
The Native American vote
Political analysts say it’s unclear which candidate is most favored among Native Americans, who are the largest minority group in the state, comprising 8.5 percent of the population. The returns from two counties – Shannon and Todd – could provide an answer.
Both counties have proven pivotal in recent statewide general election campaigns, voting overwhelmingly Democratic. And both Clinton and Obama, recognizing the ability of Native Americans to swing elections, have paid considerable attention to the community.
Shannon County, home to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, is 86 percent Native American. Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson was losing in his 2002 reelection bid until controversial late returns from Shannon County pushed him ahead of Republican John Thune by 524 votes. Democrat John Kerry won the county with 85 percent of the vote in 2004, making it his top county in the country.
Todd County, home to the Rosebud Indian Reservation and 81 percent Native American, also delivers for Democrats.
Hillary and Bill Clinton visited Pine Ridge, while the former president visited two other reservations on his own. In 1999, Bill Clinton became the first sitting president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt to visit Pine Ridge and members there remember it fondly.
While Obama has not campaigned on any South Dakota reservations, he met with tribal leaders during visits to Sioux Falls and Rapid City. He placed organizers on the reservations, and received endorsements from the presidents and vice presidents of a majority of the nine tribes in the state. Clinton advisers say Obama has benefited frm Daschle’s influence with tribal leaders.
To counter what Clinton aides view as Obama’s advantage, the New York senator has been running an ad highlighting the endorsement of the state’s biggest daily, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, which singled out her plan to improve life in Indian country.
The question, political experts say, is whether either candidate walks away with a clear win out of Indian Country, a voting bloc that is expected to receive significant attention during the general election.
“I just don’t see that Senator Clinton or Obama has done anything that might warrant them getting a supermajority,” said Robert Burns, a political scientist at South Dakota State University.
A late night?
One quirk of the South Dakota election system is the way votes are tabulated: None are counted at the precinct level. Instead, the ballots must be driven to the county auditor’s office, which runs the paper through an optical scan machine, potentially slowing down the results.
Tabulations from Shannon and Todd counties can take even longer: The ballots are sent to adjacent counties, which mean the results from these key areas are likely to come in very late (both are also in the Mountain Time zone).
The drive from parts of Rosebud reservation in Todd County to Winner in Tripp County, where the ballots are counted, is more than 90 minutes. To travel from the far reaches of the Pine Ridge reservation in Shannon County to Hot Springs in Fall River County, where the ballots are counted, can take more than two hours.
The upside is this: Votes will be counted more quickly than in the past. Until 2006, all ballots were tabulated by hand.
As Sioux Falls and Minnehaha County goes …
So might the rest of the state, according to South Dakota political experts.
Minnehaha County is home to Sioux Falls, the state's biggest city and the anchor of the eastern part of state. It's a "bit more liberal, more diverse. There is an African American population, an Hispanic population," Smith said.
In general elections, Democrats need strong margins coming out of the county, which has the largest number of registered Democratic voters, to offset Republican gains elsewhere in the state.
Obama is expected to perform well in Minnehaha County, while Clinton is looking for high turnout in the rural counties around Minnehaha where her aides believe she could do well.
South Dakota Secretary of State Chris Nelson predicted a turnout among the state’s 195,000 registered Democrats of between 40 percent and 45 percent. But campaign aides expect a slightly higher turnout of about 100,000 voters.