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While no bellwether, N. Dakota once led in primary fever

Are you weary yet of presidential preference primaries? Well, it’s another thing you can at least partly blame on North Dakota.That’s right.

Are you weary yet of presidential preference primaries? Well, it’s another thing you can at least partly blame on North Dakota.

That’s right. Eight years (two presidential election cycles) before New Hampshire began its run of quadrennial first-in-the-nation primaries, North Dakota Republicans held the country’s very first primary, on March 19, 1912.

It didn’t exactly earn the state “bellwether” status. As North Dakota went, most of the rest of the country went elsewhere.

Who won? Not the fellow you might think, the one who carried a big stick and an early out-of-state North Dakota hunting license.

Anyone with a passing awareness of the state’s history (remember native son Eric Sevareid’s lament that North Dakota was “a large, rectangular blank spot in the nation’s mind”) might naturally assume that honorary native son Theodore Roosevelt ran away with the election. TR lived and ranched in western North Dakota for a time and once said he never would have been president without that experience, a testimonial that has been used to salve the state’s inferiority complex ever since. One of the state’s jewels is Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and North Dakota sometimes calls itself the Roughrider State. (It’s a split personality; North Dakota officially is the Peace Garden State.)

But Roosevelt finished second in the 1912 primary with about 24,000 votes, more than 10,000 behind the winner.

President William Howard Taft, the incumbent seeking a second term?

He finished third, with a paltry 1,876 votes.

In 1912, progressives were on the ascendancy in North Dakota and soon would bring the left-leaning Non-Partisan League to power in Bismarck. For president they favored Sen. Robert La Follette of Wisconsin. Roosevelt, also a progressive Republican, was a clear second choice over President Taft, who represented the conservative wing of the party.

“North Dakota had long been struggling against boss-controlled government and the exploitive practices of the railroads, the money-lenders, and the grain trade,” Elwyn Robinson wrote in his seminal 1966 “History of North Dakota.” The fight grew in intensity after 1900. “For a time, everyone in North Dakota was a progressive.”

And La Follette spoke to them, as Prairie Public Radio noted in a 2006 report.

“Let no man think we can deny civil liberty to others and retain it for ourselves,” the Wisconsin senator said in 1916, when he again won the presidential endorsement of North Dakota Republicans. “When zealous agents of the Government arrest suspected ‘radicals’ without warrant, hold them without prompt trial, deny them access to counsel and admission of bail, we have shorn the Bill of Rights of its sanctity.”

A history of presidential primaries compiled last year by noted that “North Dakota’s launch of the first primary was an effort to open up a nominating process that had been dominated by party insiders.”

But while La Follette won that first primary and Roosevelt won most of the 12 that followed, Taft still controlled the party machinery and used it to capture the nomination at the Republican National Convention.

Roosevelt bolted the party and ran as the Progressive, or Bull Moose, candidate, and he beat Taft, the only time a third-party candidate has finished ahead of an incumbent president.

But Roosevelt finished second to another progressive, just as he had in the North Dakota primary. Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, won the first of his two terms with almost 6.3 million votes to just over 4.1 million for Roosevelt and fewer than 3.5 million for Taft. (Yet another progressive, Socialist Eugene V. Debs, received nearly 1 million votes.)

In the fall, Roosevelt won just six states, including Minnesota and South Dakota. Taft carried only two, Vermont and Utah.

North Dakota and the rest of the nation went with Wilson.