Another Historic Indiana Primary? Maybe Not This Year

The fact that it’s May and we’re still talking about the potential for the Indiana presidential primary to be significant is a good thing.  So often the battle for either or both nominations is long over by now and states like Indiana — which traditionally holds its primary in May — are long an afterthought.

But it’s also rare that you have a situation like you do in 2016.  When have you ever had a Republican frontrunner who continues to win primaries, garner votes and pile up delegates and yet still experiences the ire of the establishment?  When have you ever had a clear Democratic frontrunner who seems mathematically immune from being stopped, and yet finds herself in a May primary only single digits ahead of her rival?  If nothing else, it makes Indiana matter and keeps the electorate engaged.

Of course, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders wanted more than that.  That’s especially true regarding Cruz.  He tried to get John Kasich to cede Indiana to him so he could take Donald Trump on one-on-one, but the details seemed messy and doomed from the start.  Then, after getting walloped in six primaries in a row, he tried to change the subject with his Hail Carly pass, and that didn’t seem to do much for him either.

Once, Indiana was going to be the state that kept the #NeverTrump dream alive, along with fantasies of a brokered convention.  It had the kind of social conservative electorate that has rewarded Cruz in his other victories.  Now, with Trump if anything seeming to gain in strength, a primary that was going to save the Texas senator now seems, if the polls are accurate, likely to help nail his coffin shut.  A victory for Trump in the Hoosier State today would likely mean that California, on June 7, will make it official for the real estate billionaire.

It may not have made Indiana the kingmaker it hoped to be, but it’s more than they usually get.  And it still goes down as memorable.  If for no other reason than the fact that the endorsement of Trump by Mike Tyson may prove more valuable than the endorsement of Cruz by Mike Pence.

Hoosier Daddy?  A look at some memorable Indiana presidential primaries of the past which the ultimate nominee failed to win.

Democrat, 2008Hillary Clinton, trailing Barack Obama in the race for the magic number of 2,025 delegates, needed a big win in Indiana to make the case that she should stay in the contest.  She won, but by a scant 51-49% of the vote.  Coming on the same day Obama routed her in North Carolina, the result led for more people calling for her withdrawal from the race.  But she insisted she would stay in to the end.

Democrat, 1984Walter Mondale’s hopes of putting away the challenge of Gary Hart early faltered on May 8 of that year.  Hart’s narrow victories in Indiana (42-41%) and Ohio (42-40%) on the same day gave Hart a much needed boost — even if he remained hundreds of delegates behind the frontrunner.  Indiana, with its conservative rural voters in the southern part of the state and the pockets of liberal academia, was a perfect target for Hart’s campaign.

Indiana primary buttons in 1976 (Ford) and 1968 (Nixon).
Indiana primary buttons in 1976 (Ford) and 1968 (Nixon).

Republican, 1976:  It would be understandable if it looked like Ronald Reagan was running in hostile territory.  The Republican establishment, embodied by Gov. Otis Bowen and former Indianapolis Mayor (and now Senate candidate) Dick Lugar, was thought to be in the corner of President Gerald Ford.  There was not much of a Reagan operation in the state to begin with.  But many county leaders were privately for Reagan and Keith Bulen, whose GOP operation in and outside of Indianapolis was the envy of Republicans around the country, was thought to be on his side as well.  Reagan’s stock as a candidate went up dramatically the weekend before the primary with his stunning victory in Texas, where he won all 96 delegates at stake.  That momentum carried on thru the May 4th primary, where he surprised Ford with a 51-49% victory that translated into winning 45 of the state’s 54 delegates.

Democrat, 1968:  1968 was perhaps the last year in which only a few states held presidential preference primaries.  And Indiana was a big one.  It was the first contest Robert F. Kennedy entered.  His two opponents were Eugene McCarthy, the anti-war Minnesota senator, and Roger Branigin, the governor of Indiana who originally was on the ballot as a stand-in for RFK Indiana flyer 001President Lyndon Johnson and whose status changed to “uncommitted” after LBJ dropped out of the race in late March.  While the primary was held May 7, perhaps the most dramatic moment came on April 4 when Kennedy, campaigning before a largely black audience in Indianapolis, announced the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  Spurred on by a solid black vote, Kennedy won the primary with 42% of the vote, to 31% for Branigin (considered a Humphrey vote) and 27% for McCarthy.  It was perhaps not as big a victory as Kennedy wanted, but it was a win.  Kennedy would be dead within the month.

Democrat, 1964George Wallace was not a threat to win the Democratic presidential nomination this year, nor was he expected to win any primaries.  But he had three targets — in Wisconsin, Maryland and Indiana — where he hoped his brand of racial politics Clear the Way Welsh LBJ 001would make an impact in the Democratic contests.  Indiana had a long history of being one of the most significant centers of activity for the Ku Klux Klan in the North, and Democrats were fearful of a strong Wallace vote.  His opponent was not President Lyndon Johnson, who didn’t campaign in the primaries that year, but Indiana Gov. Matthew Welsh, a favorite son candidate who was a Johnson stand-in.  Welsh, who did not run an inspired campaign, nonetheless defeated Wallace 65-30%.  Wallace called his showing a great victory for “states rights,” but most observers dismissed the numbers.


May 2 — Indiana presidential and congressional primaries.

May 9 — Nebraska (Republican only) and West Virginia primaries; congressional primaries in both states.

May 17 — Kentucky (Democrat only) and Oregon primaries.  Congressional primaries in Kentucky, Oregon and Idaho.

May 24 — Washington (Republican only) primary.  Georgia congressional primary.

June 7 — Presidential primaries in California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota.  Congressional primaries in all five states + Iowa.  Democratic presidential caucuses in North Dakota.

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John Hill Texas governor 001This Day In Political History:  The Democratic primary in Texas ends the career of Gov. Dolph Briscoe, who is defeated by a younger and more active candidate, John Hill, the state attorney general.  The margin was 51-42%.  Another Democratic primary defeat was suffered by three-term Rep. Dale Milford, who fell in the 24th CD to Dallas attorney Martin Frost.  In the GOP primary in the open 19th District, George W. Bush, making his first run for office, is forced into a runoff with former Odessa Mayor Jim Reese (May 3, 1978).  Party disunity will help the Republicans win the governorship in November with former U.S. Deputy Defense Secy Bill Clements.

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