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While watching Ken Burns' The Roosevelts I noticed that from the days of TR up through the early 1960s, footage of the party conventions where presidential candidates were nominated seemed to prominently feature the delegations from the Canal Zone. Nothing specific was mentioned about this, it was just a visual detail that I happened to notice and found intriguing.

While the Canal Zone is no longer a US territory, this article from PRI suggests that Guam, the Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and Puerto Rico all vote in primary elections, despite their lack of representation in the Electoral College.

There was quite a bit of news coverage back in March when Bloomberg won in American Somoa, which will apparently have 6 delegates to the Democratic Convention.

All of this has me wondering if there was any specific election where the delegates of such territories have had any significant influence. Was there a close call where there votes were decisive? If not, have the delegates ever had any other kind of indirect influence, like a prominent speech or some kind of activism on the convention floor?

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Yes and no. I'd say mostly no.

One thing you should realize on questions about primaries is that the primary system itself is very new. Up until about the 1970's, state primaries and caucuses were optional side-shows, used to "market test" candidates. The actual decisions were made at nominating conventions by delegates who were largely officially unpledged (what we today call "Superdelegates"). The embarrassing chaos at the 1968 Democratic Convention caused a movement away from unpledged ("super") delegates toward primary/caucus - elected pledged delegates, but its been a very slow movement which continues to this day. That means the 1970's primaries may be technically comparable to modern ones (which pre-1972 ones were not), but in reality it has been a slow transition, not a switch-flip.

The point being there really isn't a coherent history with our modern primary system, and what little we do have isn't very old. There have only been 11 cycles that even remotely qualify as being under the modern system, and for most of that period superdelegates still had (collectively for what that's worth) more power than any one state's elected delegation.

That's all just a theory though, as superdelegates are generally elected officials of that party in that state. As such, they are political animals, and have a tendency to vote with their state (often going so far as to reverse endorsements when their state voted a different way).

The other reason this is "just theory" is that this system largely exists to prevent messy contested conventions, like happened in 1968. There have been only 4 cycles since then where a convention was held without a mathematically and/or procedurally secure nominee, and they all happened before 1988.

That doesn't mean territorial primaries are pointless though. Puerto Rico actually has a larger Democratic convention delegation (and thus more voting power) than 22 US states including my own, and such famous primary stalwarts as Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. They have more delegates than South Dakota and Montana combined.

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  • I was an early political junkie, and in 1968 watched much of 4 leadership conventions: U.S. Democratic & Republican and Canadian Liberal & Conservative. Always amused by the constant first round refrain of: "The proud people of <State> are pleased to support their *favourite son <John Smith>*." At the time i was a bit puzzled by just what a "favourite son" was - not any more. – Pieter Geerkens May 13 at 15:00
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    This is helpful thanks! The Roosevelts mentions a lot about what went on at the nominating conventions but it hadn't occurred to me that there were no primaries as such in those days. – Brian Z May 13 at 15:12
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    @PieterGeerkens - I think that happened a lot more back before '72, with the idea that there were likely going to be multiple rounds of voting, and it was a nice gesture to increase the visibility (and thus perhaps political power) of a local pol. The national media would report afterwards that person in question (the favorite son) got X votes in the first round, along with everyone else's. On later rounds they'd drop the "favorite son" for a serious candidate. Unless of course he lucked into getting traction as a compromise candidate. – T.E.D. May 13 at 15:29
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    @T.E.D.: Yep, that's exactly how it worked. Lots of background negotiations went on as well to swing those states voting for favourite sons in the early round(s). – Pieter Geerkens May 13 at 15:50

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