Could Clinton Dominate in South Dakota?

With all the “will she or won’t she” speculation about Hillary Clinton dropping out, a lot of people seem to forget that nobody knows how tonight’s elections will turn out. (This lack of interest may have something to do with the low stakes—Clinton’s done either way.) Stoking the drama, such as it is, is a recent ARG poll that shows Clinton leading Obama in South Dakota by a daunting 26 points, 60 percent to 34 percent.

Blog reaction to the poll has been deeply skeptical, at best. “Seriously? Is this actually possible?” gawks Election Inspection. TalkLeft dismisses the poll as “just for fun.” The widely read stats blog Five Thirty Eight deems the survey “completely batshit crazy.” The skepticism is rooted in the fact the Obama won the surrounding states by almost equally large margins. (See the New York Times’ electoral map here .) Another problem: There’s little to back it up. Pollsters have hardly bothered to survey Montana and South Dakota , leading to wildly differing views.

I called up ARG pollster Dick Bennett, who defended the poll. “It’s what the voters told us,” he said. “It’s the same process we’ve used in other states.” The survey interviewed 600 people who represented the state’s demographics, without the need for weighting or other fancy modeling.

Bennett dismissed the notion that South Dakota will vote like the surrounding states. “Look at New Hampshire compared to Vermont and Massachusetts and New York,” he said. “You can’t pick out states like that.”

He also pointed out that South Dakota is the oldest of the recent states except for Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and Clinton has performed well among older voters. According to the U.S. Census, 14.2 percent of South Dakota ’s population is 65 years or older. In Pennsylvania , the number was 15.2 percent; in West Virginia , 15.3 percent. The Mount Rushmore State also has a closed primary, which tends to favor Clinton—no “independent bonus voters for Obama,” Bennett said—and a large proportion of likely Democratic voters are women.

Another factor is the Native American population. There are no good polls for how Native Americans tend to vote—and in an election as demographically determined as this one, that could be a major factor in South Dakota’s outcome. Both candidates have courted tribal leaders, but it’s unclear who’s favored. Bennett says it doesn’t matter, since Native Americans vote in such low numbers. They make up about 8 percent of the population, but they “didn’t filter through as likely voters,” Bennett said. “Barack Obama could get 100 percent of them, and it won’t make a difference.”

Clinton is calling her speech tonight in New York a “celebration.” If ARG is right—or anywhere near right—she might actually have something to celebrate.