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In South Dakota, Only the Farm Trumps Conservatism

We continue our Presidential Geography series, a one-by-one examination of the peculiarities that drive the politics in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Here, a look at South Dakota, the Mount Rushmore State. FiveThirtyEight spoke with Michael Card, an associate professor of political science at the University of South Dakota; John Miller, a former professor of history at South Dakota State University; and Erin Fouberg, a professor of geography at Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D.

South Dakota has always been a Republican state. Even with a missing finger, you could count on one hand the times the state has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. The last Democrat to carry the state was Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Gallup, measuring the percentage of residents in each state who identify with either the Democratic Party or Republican Party, ranked South Dakota as the ninth most Republican. It is one of the least diverse states and one of the top gun-owning states. Barring the unforeseen, Mitt Romney will win South Dakota’s three electoral votes.

Yet, South Dakota has several characteristics that allow Democrats — though rarely Democratic presidential candidates — to win statewide elections. First and foremost is the state’s agrarian roots. The state’s political culture has been described as “agrarian conservatism,” and when the latter conflicts with the former, agrarian interests almost always take precedence.

In addition, South Dakota’s small population — less than 825,000 residents according to the Census Bureau’s 2011 estimate — enables charismatic campaigners, even Democrats, to compensate for ideological discrepancies between the candidate and the electorate.

Generally speaking, South Dakota goes from conservative in the east to more conservative in the west, Ms. Fouberg said.

In 2008, when President Obama lost the state by 8.5 percentage points, most of his strongest counties were in the east, in the Sioux Falls area, in Clay County where the University of South Dakota is based, and around Aberdeen. The only counties Mr. Obama won west of the James River were sparsely populated with large American Indian populations.

But eastern South Dakota is not liberal by any means. Mr. Obama carried Sioux Falls’s Minnehaha County by only 587 votes. There is more latent support for Democrats in the east partly because that is where the state’s populist movement was strongest, Mr. Card said. In 1890, South Dakota reformers founded the nation’s first populist party, the Independent Party, partly to help protect the family farm. Since then, when Republicans have lost at the ballot box, it’s often been to a populist, or populist-tinged, candidate campaigning on farming issues.

The easternmost slice of the state, where most South Dakotans live, is essentially an extension of the Corn Belt. Agriculture, including soybeans, corn, cattle and hogs, is still a major industry in South Dakota, but the state’s economy is more diversified than it once was, with substantial health care, manufacturing and financial services sectors. Tourism is also a major economic driver in South Dakota, largely because of Mount Rushmore, and the state’s unemployment rate has been well below the national average for some time.

Sioux Falls is a major hub for the credit card and banking industries, including Citibank, which was lured to South Dakota after the state eliminated usury caps in the early 1980s. Without usury limits, the financial services sector ballooned. More than 18,000 people in South Dakota now work in financial services.

Traveling west the land becomes more arid and much less populated. Central and western South Dakota are part of the Great Plains, and — outside the counties with Democratic-leaning American Indian reservations — uniformly Republican. Native Americans, particularly Sioux tribes, are the only substantial minority group in South Dakota, making up 9 percent of the population. The far western edge of the state, around Rapid City in the Black Hills, also has a strong libertarian streak, Mr. Card said.

Considering how conservative the state is, Democratic candidates for House and Senate have done surprisingly well. During the last half-century, South Dakota has always had at least one Democratic senator or representative, a conf
using tendency given the state’s consistent preference for Republicans in elections of presidents and governors.

But South Dakota is heavily reliant on the federal government, to support both farms and roads and infrastructure to connect such an expansive state. That fact has led many to conclude, Mr. Card said, “that we send our Democrats to bring home the bacon.”

The Bellwether: Codington County

Anchored by Watertown, Codington County was just one percentage point more Democratic than the statewide vote in 2008, just one point more Republican in 2004, and spot on in 2000.

“Codington County is a good mixture of farming, ranching, industry and service sectors,” Ms. Fouberg said, “Economically, it is a microcosm of the state.

The Bottom Line

With no major city, few minorities and few union members, there is barely an organized left in South Dakota, Mr. Miller said. “Even the university people aren’t that liberal,” he said.

In order to overcome South Dakota’s conservatism, Democratic candidates usually need an opening on agrarian issues. A good example is the 1986 election of Tom Daschle, the former majority leader in the Senate. The farm crisis of the 1980s was still haunting South Dakota, and Ronald Reagan’s farm policies were deeply unpopular in the state.

Mr. Daschle also took advantage of South Dakota’s small population, reportedly knocking on 40,000 doors during the campaign. During his time in office, Mr. Daschle would tour almost all of South Dakota’s 66 counties each August.

It is hard to imagine those circumstances applying to a Democratic presidential candidate. Neither major party has a clear advantage on farm issues, and a Democratic candidate would be loath to spend much time kissing South Dakotan babies for three electoral votes. The FiveThirtyEight model currently has Mr. Romney as a 98 percent favorite to carry the state, and — unless something unforeseen occurs — it is not likely South Dakota will favor a Democratic presidential candidate any time soon.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.