GRAND FORKS, N.D. — You always saw it there at the top of that middle-of-the-country stack of unabashedly red states, prairie bookend to reliably Republican Texas and a cornerstone of the GOP’s hold on the Plains and the Mountain West.
But on some Electoral College maps, North Dakota — which hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1964 — has faded to at-risk pink, or even toss-up blank.
“Not a good sign for the GOP this close to Nov. 4,” the Los Angeles Times’ Top of the Ticket blogger opined as North Dakota moved into the coin-flip category following publication of a new poll that showed Barack Obama leading John McCain in North Dakota, 45 percent to 43 percent.
Choose your response:
a) It’s only three electoral votes.
b) IT’S THREE ELECTORAL VOTES!!!
Since the difference falls within the poll’s margin of error (4 percent), the race is considered a statistical tie. But as recently as mid-September, another statewide poll showed McCain leading Obama in North Dakota by 13 percentage points, 53-40.
The latest poll, a statewide telephone survey of 606 likely North Dakota voters, was conducted Oct. 6-8 by the Public Affairs Institute at Minnesota State University Moorhead. It was done for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which reported the results Oct. 13.
Twelve percent of the poll respondents said they were undecided.
Bush won twice with healthy margin
President Bush carried the state with 61 percent of the vote in 2000 and 64 percent in 2004, but Republicans acknowledge this is another time.
“I think it could be tight this year, but in the end McCain will win,” said Stacey Dahl, a Republican state representative from Grand Forks who served as a co-chair of McCain’s caucus campaign in the state.
“Who would have thought it would be this close?” she said. “I don’t think anybody saw this coming, but there’s a lot of anxiety out there about the economy, and that has had an impact.”
Among voters who named the economy their top concern, 49 percent said they support Obama to 38 percent who said they favor McCain, the Forum reported.
“We’re really on a separate economic track here in North Dakota, with really low unemployment and a healthy state budget surplus,” Dahl said. But even with record oil revenues and good farm yields and prices, people are worried. “A lot of people here have money in 401(k)s,” she said.
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, a Republican and chairman of the state McCain campaign, said the tightening race doesn’t surprise him.
“We always thought it was going to be close here,” he said. “The Bush years have worn on North Dakotans just as they have on people elsewhere.
“But John McCain isn’t George Bush, and I still think McCain will carry North Dakota, just as I think he will carry Montana and South Dakota and the rest of the Great Plains.”
Still a fight ahead
Democrats are excited by the tightening race but admit there’s still a fight ahead.
“I think it’s possible that Obama could win” in North Dakota, said Chad Nodland, 42, a Bismarck attorney and editor of the North Decoder, a Democrat-friendly politics Web site.
“We have 150 to 175 active volunteers here in Bismarck out canvassing and making calls. People in Valley City and Jamestown and other towns are ordering signs in bulk. I’ve never seen anything like this in my lifetime in North Dakota.”
Obama easily won the Feb. 5 North Dakota Democratic caucuses, and that showing caused many to suggest that the state might actually be in play in November.
“The symbolic value of a strong showing here would be huge,” Matt Weinstein, then state Obama campaign director, said before the caucuses. “When I arrived here in November (2007), people were just shocked we had a presidential campaign staffer in the state.”
Obama addressed large crowd in April
Obama himself came to the state in April and spoke (below) to a raucous crowd of more than 17,000 people at the state Democratic Party convention in Grand Forks.
Obama speaking at the North Dakota State Democratic Convention on April 4, 2008.
“Some people think Democrats can’t win in North Dakota — it’s just a flyover state,” he said, needling primary rival Hillary Rodham Clinton for a remark she had made about the importance of big states vs. little states. “We didn’t fly over North Dakota,” Obama said to resounding cheers. “We landed.”
So did Clinton, who followed Obama to Grand Forks and the state party’s podium by just a few hours — even though Obama already had won the state caucuses — further bolstering state Democrats’ sense that they and their three electoral votes might actually matter this election.
As if to underscore the point, Obama made a second visit to North Dakota on July 3, speaking to a Fargo audience dominated by military veterans, and over the summer his campaign sprouted 11 local offices with 50 paid staffers, who organized volunteers for a massive voter identification drive.
But in late September, the offices were closed and the paid staffers redeployed to Minnesota and Wisconsin, battleground states where the race appeared close and the stakes — in electoral votes — much higher.
Volunteer work continued
That dismayed Erin Barta, a University of North Dakota freshman and Obama volunteer, but she vowed to continue the voter-identification work she had been doing.
“I’m not ready to be done yet,” she told the campus newspaper, the Dakota Student. “I still think it’s important that Barack Obama becomes the president of the United States, so I’m still going to go out there and do whatever it takes.
“It never occurred to me that we’d quit before (election) day.”
She said she knew it wouldn’t be easy.
“This campaign is a machine, and I was being told by a superior what to do (and) when to do it, and I did it with 1,000 percent enthusiasm,” Barta said, “but now it’s different when I have to figure out all the chain links of what they did.”
Barta continues to work on voter turnout in her legislative district, and she said Thursday that she is “thrilled” by the recent poll results showing the presidential race to be a dead heat.
“It’s nice validation for anyone working on the campaign,” she said, “and it shows people that you can’t just assume things about North Dakota.”
The final push to Nov. 4
Whether Obama can become the first Democrat to carry North Dakota since Lyndon Johnson will come down to two things, Nodland said.
“First is the last-minute push to get the Obama supporters to the polls — how well that’s done,” he said. The paid staffers are gone, but they left a lot of volunteers who have organized as North Dakota Grassroots for Obama, and they’ll be working with the party.
“Second, I think another visit could be decisive,” Nodland said. “If he comes back to North Dakota a third time, I think he closes the deal.”
Despite his weakened showing in the recent poll, McCain on Sunday won endorsement from the Forum, the state’s largest newspaper, which praised his “traditional conservative values, a streak of independence and … depth of experience.” As to Obama, “Americans should not put a rookie in the highest office in the land,” the editorial stated.
“The new leader of the free world must inspire confidence, not only at home, but overseas. Obama’s oratorical skills are impressive, but they tend to mesmerize, rather than stimulate critical thinking about his policy positions. McCain might not be as smooth, but his record and his independence reveal a steady hand. America needs a steady hand.”
Chuck Haga writes about the Dakotas and western Minnesota. A Star Tribune staff writer from 1987-2007, he is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. He can be reached at chaga [at] minnpost [dot] com.