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What’s up with North Dakota?

June 9, 2012

When four-term Democratic Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota announced last year that he would retire at the end of his current term, Republicans saw an easy pick-up.  North Dakota Republicans significantly outnumber Democrats, and the state has a distinctly conservative cast. Republicans have dominated elections for state offices for twenty years.  North Dakotans have voted for the Democratic presidential candidate only once in the last 70 years.

Still, North Dakota has a strain of farmer-labor populism in its political history.  Democrats held both of North Dakota’s Senate seats, and its only House seat, continuously from 1987 until 2011.  Add to all of that the fact that North Dakota is in the midst of an oil-driven economic boom, drawing non-North Dakotans to the state in large numbers and driving up incomes and property values of all North Dakotans, making North Dakota in 2012 something of a wild card.

The Democratic candidate to succeed Senator Conrad is Heidi Heitkamp, a popular former state attorney general.  Ms. Heitkamp gave that position up for an unsuccessful run for governor in 2000.  She opted out of a run for Senate in 2010, but dived in this year.  Her opponent is the state’s only member of the House of Representatives, Republican freshman Rick Berg.

The scrupulously data-driven Nate Silver rates the race as “lean Republican.”  So FiveThirtyEight does not include North Dakota among the eight “toss-up” races that it considers likely to decide control of the Senate.

RealClearPolitics also rates eight races as toss-ups, but they’re not the same eight.  RCP rates North Dakota a toss-up, on the strength of a Mason-Dixon poll taken last week, showing Heitkamp ahead by a point.  The only other poll reported by RCP was taken a month ago – a Forum/Essman poll showing Berg up by seven.  For what it’s worth, in 2010 FiveThirtyEight rated Mason-Dixon in the top ten of major polling firms based on polls taken from 1998 to 2010 – and second among firms that had done at least 100 qualifying presidential, congressional or gubernatorial polls during that time.

RealClearPolitics takes account only of poll results.  FiveThirtyEight’s computer model takes account of a whole lot of other factors, plus polling.  An advantage of the RealClearPolitics approach – maybe the only advantage – is that it is easily updated for every new poll result.  At this stage of the race, FiveThirtyEight’s Senate race projections are not frequently updated, so do not yet take account of the Mason-Dixon result.

A one-point lead for Heitkamp in one poll in early June isn’t a win.  But it is an indication that the North Dakota race may not be the gimme that Republicans hoped for – which is a good sign for Heidi Heitkamp, and a good sign for Democratic prospects for holding control of the Senate.


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