Robert Patterson McCarney was born on January 28, 1912, in Churdan, Iowa. He was the son of Thomas and Rhoda McCarney. He graduated from Churdan High School in 1929. He hitchhiked to Bismarck, North Dakota, in 1932, and found work selling pencils along Main Avenue. He also played baseball with a Bismarck semi-professional team, before finding employment at Fleck Motors. His first position entailed sweeping floors, although he eventually was promoted to salesman. He married Elizabeth Huttner of Lignite, North Dakota, on September 8, 1934. The couple had one daughter, Sharon.
McCarney entered the United States Army on May 4, 1942, at Camp Sutton, North Carolina. He served in North Africa and Italy, before separating on November 26, 1945, at Camp Cooke, California, with the rank of Captain. Following the war, McCarney returned to Bismarck and a position at Fleck Motors. For a short time in 1955, he moved to Austin, Minnesota, where he purchased a car dealership and became a partner in a food manufacturing firm. By 1957, he was back in Bismarck, owning and operating McCarney Midway Motors, a used car lot. In 1957, he purchased Universal Motor Company, a Ford automobile dealership. In 1962, the company was renamed McCarney Ford. Under his guidance, the company became one of the largest Ford dealerships in the Midwest. In 1972, McCarney sold the company to Allan Holms.
McCarney was well known throughout the state as the "Referral King." From 1963 to 1980, McCarney managed to place nine referrals, five initiated measures, and one constitutional amendment on the ballot. Most of these related to the issues of taxes and state expenditures. His first referral was in 1963, arguing for a rejection of five school tax levy bills passed by the State Legislature. He successfully lead a referral to reject a 3.2 million dollar appropriation for a new Bank of North Dakota building in 1970, but received his first referral defeat in 1971, when voters agreed to maintain appropriations for the Accounts and Purchases Department. His final referral was in 1980, when voters overturned funding for state purchase of land for Cross Ranch State Park.
McCarney also unsuccessfully campaigned for several political offices. He ran in the 1964 Republican primary for governor, but was defeated by Don Halcrow. McCarney succeeded in winning the primary in 1968, but was defeated by the incumbent Democrat Bill Guy in the fall election. In 1970, he won the Republican primary for the United States House of Representatives by a total of three votes, but was defeated by the Democrat Art Link. Another attempt in the Republican Gubernatorial primary occurred in 1972. In 1974, he switched parties and entered the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, but lost the nomination to Bill Guy.
Besides his political interests and activities, McCarney was a member of the Eagles, the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Dakota Zoological Society, and the Mary College President's Club. He served as President several organizations, including the Bismarck Chamber of Commerce, the Bismarck-Mandan Automobile Dealers Association, and the Bismarck Combined Parent Teacher Association.
Robert P. McCarney died on March 23, 1988 at Missouri Slope Lutheran Care Center in Bismarck. He is buried at Sunset Memorial Gardens in Bismarck.