Life would differ here if Hoosiers still cast first votes, as they did a century ago

Mailboxes stuffed with candidate fliers, every day.

Calls to your cellphone from pollsters. Rival campaign signs in every yard. An endless loop of attack ads between your favorite TV shows. Reporters asking the political opinions of every bar patron and pedestrian in sight. Politicians interrupting restaurant customers’ biscuits and gravy to shake hands. Ominous sounding voices emanating from car radios, warning of impending doom and “the end of America as we know it.”

Yes, all of this and more could’ve been ours, Hoosiers, if we hadn’t fiddled with the Indiana primary date a century ago. In 1916, Indiana cast the first votes to narrow the field of presidential candidates. We were first then. Not Iowa. Not New Hampshire. Indiana.

After the turn of the 20th century, states first dabbled with the concept of conducting primaries, or preliminary voting, to legally bind delegates to presidential candidates. Oregon started it all in 1912, and the number of state primaries grew to 25 by 1916, according to the 2008 book, “From Primaries to the Polls: How to Repair America’s Broken Presidential Nomination Process,” by Thomas Gangale.

Indiana jumped on that bandwagon and set its primary date for Tuesday, March 7, 1916. Hoosiers voted first in the nation’s first large-scale attempt at the primary nomination format that year, rubber-stamping the unopposed candidacies of incumbent Democratic President Woodrow Wilson and Republican Charles W. Fairbanks. New Hampshire and Minnesota went second, one week later.

The initial fascination with primaries faded, though. State governments figured, after low voter turnouts in 1916, the primaries weren’t worth the expense. Thus, Minnesota scrapped its primary. Indiana shifted its primary to springtime, the first Tuesday in May, and voted on that date in 1920, ‘24 and ‘28, before suspending its primary until 1956. Hoosiers have voted in early May ever since.

Meanwhile, New Hampshire moved to the front of the primary line in 1920 and still clings to that distinction, with one significant asterisk, the Iowa Caucuses. The complexity of those “neighborhood meetings” prompted the national parties to get those completed first, starting with the Democrats in 1972 and then Republicans, too, in 1976, according to the Des Moines Register.

As other states moved up their primaries, Iowa and New Hampshire did likewise to protect their status.

So on Feb. 1, Iowa held its political “Super Bowl” with the caucuses, which drew a record voter turnout. The influx of candidates, their entourages, political junkies, media (more than 1,500 news people, alone) and “political tourists” (yes, that’s a thing) gives that 99-county farm state’s economy a $15-million jolt, according to Bloomberg News. Then, they pack up and trek northeast to New Hampshire.

By contrast to Iowa, the impact of the Granite State’s primary has been estimated at less than 1 percent of the overall New Hampshire economy, according to a University of New Hampshire researcher.

New Hampshire’s position, though, yields different benefits. Its residents vote. The state’s turnout surpassed 70 percent in 2012 and typically ranks near the top in the U.S. New Hampshire and Iowa also feature a patchwork of small towns, rural areas and a handful of metros, forcing presidential wannabes to converse with local folks face to face, and candidates who choose to talk more than listen risk losing votes.

Could Indiana have handled such political intensity? Imagine Ted Cruz standing outside a Rockville diner, waiting for Republican opponent Marco Rubio to finish chatting up senior citizens over pancakes. Or Bernie Sanders holding a town hall meeting in a Terre Haute VFW post while Hillary Clinton speaks to a crowd at the West Vigo Community Center.

A CNN crew films inside a Sullivan restaurant. Donald Trump rents Hulman Center for a night. John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie and Ben Carson roam the Honey Creek Mall. And that continues all winter, from Fort Wayne to Evansville, and New Albany to Portage.

That’s all just a dream, or a nightmare, depending on your perspective. Indiana’s actual 2016 primary on May 3 will be far less manic. Far fewer Hoosiers vote than Iowans or New Hampshirites; in fact, we ranked last in the nation in turnout for the 2014 midterm election. If Indiana still held its first-in-the-nation primary position, vast sectors of the population that currently don’t vote heavily and consequently get ignored by state politicians would instead hold some influence.

If Indiana held the pole position, it probably would’ve abandoned its century-old voter registration deadline (one month before the election) long ago and adopted Election Day registration, as Iowa has done.

A slim chance exists that the 2016 Indiana primary could play a role in determining the nominees. The Trump vs. Cruz vs. Rubio race for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination could stretch into late spring, and Clinton’s bid for the Democratic nomination against Sanders could go down to the wire, as it did in 2008 against future President Obama.

That year, Indiana’s presidential primary mattered. More often, though, the eventual nominees are already on cruise control by the time Indiana takes its turn, with voting in nearly 40 states completed by May.

At least we can eat our eggs and bacon in peace.

Mark Bennett is a writer for the (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.