Why North Dakota Matters More Than You Think This Election

Despite all of the patriotic pageantry and the endless invocations of the unparalleled freedom of the American people, it’s hard not to see through the sham that is our electoral process. To paraphrase George Orwell, it would appear that all votes are created equal in this country, except that some votes are just more equal than others. According to The New York Times’ 538 Blog, only 9 of the 50 states in the union are estimated to be legitimately up for grabs come November 6th, with a further 7 states leaning strongly towards one candidate or the other. The candidate’s campaign spending mirrors this reality, with the bulk of TV ad purchases from both parties being made in just 10 states1. By way of extreme example, the Obama and Romney campaigns, along with their PACs and interest groups, have spent nearly $90 million in TV advertising in the state of Florida since June of this year, while not spending a red cent in Connecticut or Arkansas. The candidate’s travel itineraries reflect the relative import of the various states in a similar way, with the two campaigns making a staggering 54 visits to Ohio over the past 3 months while not paying a single visit to the electoral wasteland directly to the south in Kentucky. Mitt Romney may have admitted to not giving a good goddamn about 47% of the country, but if they’re checkbooks and travel plans are to be believed, it looks like they’ve stopped caring about a bigger percentage than that for some time now.

However, there are a select few states whose electorates are getting the last laugh through all of the checks and balances that make up our system of government. While the House of Representatives is expected to stay in Republican hands after the election is over, the fate of the Senate is not at all certain. The Democrats go into the race technically in the driver’s seat with a 4 vote lead in the senate, but with the economy still reeling and a rash of Democratic incumbents retiring in hotly contested states, that lead isn’t very safe. Of the 33 open senate seats in this election cycle, the NY Times has 18 of them listed as either toss-ups or leaning towards one candidate. And, while some of these races take place in already contentious battleground states, a number of them are happening in places that you’d never imagine would be the center of an electoral drama. Strongly partisan states like Massachusetts and Montana, which would normally be of no consequence in an election year, are getting media attention this time around due to their too-close-to-call senate races that could shift the balance of political power in this country come November.

There is perhaps no more disproportionately and unexpectedly important state in 2012 than North Dakota. With the retirement of four term Democratic Senator Kent Conrad, North Dakota finds itself at the heart of major national political battle for the first time in a generation. Despite being a deeply conservative state, North Dakotans are stewards of that unique brand of populism peculiar to the Upper Midwest. Like their more liberal neighbors to the east in Minnesota, the citizens of North Dakota have long held a Janus-faced political persona. On the one hand, North Dakota has a staunchly conservative state legislature where Republicans outnumber their Democratic counterparts by a margin of nearly 4 to 1. On the other is the fact that North Dakota has sent at least one Democrat to the US Senate every year since 1960. But, for me, the most amazing thing about North Dakotan voting habits is that their record in voting for congress has absolutely no bearing on their presidential voting record. Only once during this half century of Democratic representation in the US Senate did North Dakota skew left of center in the presidential election and that was way back in 1964. Even during the the1990s and 2000s, when they were sending two Democrats to the Senate, North Dakota showed up en masse for GOP presidential candidates.

A Satirical Cover from The Non-Partisan Leader, 1917.

In order to understand North Dakota’s bi-polar voting patterns today, you have to go back about a century to when the state’s political identity was first forming. North Dakota used to be three party system, with the Democrats and Republicans taking their usual seats at the table and the third place being occupied by the Non-Partisan League (NPL). The NPL sprang up from the robust Progressive movement occurring in North Dakota in the early 20th Century and was originally formed to champion the rights of farmers in the state. As strange at it may sound, North Dakota had a very strong Socialist contingent in the first quarter of the 20th century, a fact which goes a long way to explaining the state’s seemingly paradoxical political leanings. By the 1950s, North Dakota was heading in the direction of a two party system and the Non-Partisan League split in two along ideological lines and much of the party merged with the Democrats to form the Democratic-Nonpartisan League Party (Dem-NPL), which is still the primary liberal party in the state today. The historic strength of its labor movement, along with its small population and the development of the oil industry the western part of the state over the past half century, have produced the lowest current unemployment rate of all of the 50 US states.

Beyond the tripartite origins of their political system, the most formative influence on North Dakota’s political character is the state itself. Put quite simply, North Dakota has a lot of space and not a whole lot of people. The state’s 70,000+ square miles of land lays claim to just over 680,000 citizens, making it the 3rd least populous state in the union. Put another way, North Dakota holds 30,000 less citizens than the City of Detroit on a tract of land that is slightly larger than the entire nation of Uruguay. Only Alaska, Wyoming, and Montana have less density of population and I think Alaska should have an asterisk next to it because uninhabitable frozen tundra really shouldn’t be counted as land in a population survey.

With so few voters to reach out to, North Dakota is fertile ground for effective grassroots campaigning. As University of North Dakota Political Science Professor Mark Jendrysik points out, the value of intimate contact with the candidates cannot be overestimated in their state. It’s the type of place where, “people really do feel bent out of shape if you don’t show up at their church picnic or town parade.”2 And, this emphasis on fostering a sense of closeness and likeability with the populous seems to have stood the Dem-NPL party in good stead on the Congressional level. Even though it was a Democrat in Senator Kent Conrad who was retiring from the Senate this year, it was widely assumed that Republican nominee Rick Berg would have a fairly easy road to Capitol Hill in November. Despite his staggering incompetence, Mitt Romney still holds a large lead over President Obama in the polls and common wisdom seemed to suggest that Berg would ride that momentum to victory. However, since she entered the race 10 months ago, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp has steadily gained ground on her opponent, actually pulling ahead in one poll conducted back in June. What once seemed like a lock is now one of the closest races in the country.

In North Dakota, many potential voters side with personalities over principles and, as a result, races for federal office often have the flavor of a battle for county commissioner. That means to hell with massive online media campaigns and $50,000 a plate fundraisers and hello to good ole-fashioned baby-kissing, hand-shaking, parade-leading politics. North Dakota voters don’t expect a candidate to speak to them in some general, 3rd-person fashion from behind a podium. They quite literally expect to get a chance to speak directly with a candidate on the campaign trail and to feel them out like you would your daughter’s high school boyfriend on prom night. In this type of environment, the edge clearly goes to the personable Heitkamp. A former state’s attorney general and current director of a synthetic natural-gas company, Ms. Heitkamp is as pleasant and relatable as her name would suggest. No one named Heidi is going to be an aloof plutocrat. Christ, Heidi Heitkamp doesn’t even sound like a real name so much as it does the name of the latest American Girl doll. Meet Heidi Heitkamp, a spunky young gal from the plains of North Dakota who is as quick with a field hockey stick as she is with her prized gelding, Sapphire.

Heidi Heitkamp, showing how you campaign in North Dakota

Her opponent, Rick Berg, isn’t so fortunate. Despite spending over a quarter century in the North Dakota legislature and in the US House of Representatives, Berg still hasn’t seemed to have gotten the hang of the state’s brand of personal politics. His issues actually mirror those of the Romney campaign fairly closely. Berg is one of the wealthiest members of congress, with an estimated worth of over $21 million. The vast majority of his money was made with Goldmark Property Management Inc., a corporation that serves as one of North Dakota’s largest landlords and with which Berg has been associated since its founding. The current owner of several Goldmark properties and a player in the company’s convoluted organizational structure, Berg repeatedly backed legislation in the North Dakota House that bolstered the financial and legal interests of state landlords. It doesn’t appear that there is anything illegal in Berg’s fiscal and political dealings with Goldmark, but there is plenty that is unsavory, especially to predominantly rural, blue-collar electorate.

None of this means that Berg is necessarily in a bad position at the moment. He still is up by 5 points in he latest poll averages tabulated by Real Clear Politics, and North Dakota hasn’t got any less conservative in the past few months. However, in a prime indicator that things are getting hot and hairy in Bismarck, Berg publicly distanced himself from Mitt Romney’s secret video remarks about the 47% of Americans who were wholly dependent on government and would never vote for him. The only other Republican Senate candidates to make such a statement are all in tight races that are either considered toss-ups or leaning Democratic3. This, more than any influx of cash or poll result, lets us know that the GOP is scared out of their minds about the increasingly distinct possibility of losing North Dakota. Right now, it’s just a matter of time. Coming down the home stretch, Berg still has a couple lengths on Heitkamp, but she’s got a whole lot more left in the tank. If they want a chance at gaining back control of the Senate, Republicans better hope that she runs out of track before their man runs out of gas.

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1Technically, the number appears to be higher, but this is only because many major TV markets spill over into neighboring states. For instance, Jacksonville’s TV market extends from Northern Florida into parts of Southeastern Georgia and media buys in Reno, NV bleed into parts of Eastern California. Check out The Washington Post‘s great “Mad Money” feature for more info: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/politics/track-presidential-campaign-ads-2012/

3Those who have disavowed the 47% gaffe include Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.), as well as Senate hopefuls George Allen of Virginia, Linda Lingle of Hawaii and Linda McMahon of Connecticut.

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2 replies

  1. Reblogged this on Déowyth and commented:
    I really like this post.

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