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“Fightin’ Bob” crushed president in 1912 first primary

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Steven Walters
April 2, 2012

In 1905, Wisconsin was the first state to require a presidential primary. It was a Progressive-era reform designed to let voters—and not cigar-chomping male party bosses—pick candidates.


Because it took a while to implement, Wisconsin’s first presidential primary was held 100 years ago, on April 2, 1912.


That first vote embarrassed President William H. Taft. On April 2, 1912, Wisconsin native son and U.S. Sen. Robert “Fightin’ Bob” La Follette got 73 percent of the vote for the GOP presidential nomination; Taft got 26 percent. All this comes from the Legislative Reference Bureau research.


Fast-forward to Tuesday, when Wisconsin could have a voice in the national dialogue over who will be the Republican presidential nominee.


About 1.5 million voters—or 35 percent of all voting-age residents—are expected to go the polls. State officials said they have warned local election clerks that a last-minute Supreme Court order could reinstate the requirement that all voters must show a photo ID, but that order had not been issued as of late last week.


At stake are Wisconsin’s 42 delegates—18 chosen at-large and three from each of the eight U.S. House districts—to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., in August.


Wisconsin Republicans, and even Republican-for-a-day voters who take advantage of the open primary system that won’t make them publicly declare a party affiliation Tuesday, can either tighten the grip of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on his party’s nomination or give much-needed oxygen to the campaign of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.


A Marquette University Law School poll last week gave Romney a lead of 39 percent to 31 percent over Santorum. It reversed the Santorum-on-top survey of February.


Two other GOP presidential hopefuls competing here Tuesday, Texas Congressman Ron Paul and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, polled 11 percent and 5 percent, respectively, in the Marquette survey.


Santorum spent days in Wisconsin last week, trying to overcome heavy anti-Santorum spending by Restore Our Future, the super-PAC that wants Romney to run against Democratic President Barack Obama in November.


But Wisconsin Republicans have given more than 30 percent of their votes to a second-place finisher only four times since 1976.


--On Feb. 19, 2008, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee got 36.9 percent of the presidential primary vote, which Arizona Sen. John McCain won with 54.7 percent of the vote.


A total of 410,607 votes were cast in the Republican primary, but 1.1 million voted in the Democratic primary between then-Sen. Obama and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton. Obama won Wisconsin, 58.1 percent to Clinton’s 40.8 percent.


Ironically, Paul got 4.6 percent of the 2008 GOP vote in 2008—double the 2 percent given Romney.


--On March 19, 1996, Patrick Buchanan got 33.8 percent of the Wisconsin’s GOP presidential primary vote, which Kansas Sen. Bob Dole won with 52.3 percent of the vote. The Republican primary attracted 576,575 voters that year.


--On April 1, 1980, George H.W. Bush got 30.4 percent of the presidential primary vote, finishing second to former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, who won with 40.2 percent. The Reagan-Bush showdown brought out the most voters—907,853—in Wisconsin GOP primary history.


Democratic presidential primaries in Wisconsin have often been much closer contests:


--In 2004, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry got 39.6 percent of the vote, beating former Sen. John Edwards, who got 34.3 percent.


--In 1992, Bill Clinton got 37.2 percent of the vote, edging out former California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., who got 34.5 percent.


--In 1984, former Sen. Gary Hart got 44.4 percent of the vote, narrowly defeating former Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale, who got 41.1 percent.


--In 1976, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter got 36.6 percent of the presidential primary vote—1 percent more than Morris Udall.


--In 1972, none of four Democratic president candidates got more than 30 percent of the vote: then-Sen. George McGovern, 29.6 percent; former Gov. George Wallace, 22 percent; former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, 20.7 percent, and Sen. Edmund Muskie, 10.3 percent.


That contest drew the most votes—1.12 million—of all Wisconsin presidential primaries.


After Edwards surged against Kerry in Wisconsin’s Democratic primary in 2004, losing by only 5 percent of the vote, he had a great sound-bite reaction, stealing it from the inscription on car rearview mirrors:


Wisconsin’s Democratic voters sent this message to Kerry, Edwards declared: “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”


Santorum hopes to recycle that line Wednesday.


Steven Walters is a senior producer for WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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