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Lloyd Omdahl, Published October 16 2011

Omdahl: Place your bets on 2012

Even though it is too early to start placing bets on the 2012 election, John Dwyer, president and CEO of the Lignite Energy Council, wanted the best estimates at the annual meeting of the Lignite Energy Council in Bismarck earlier this month. Best estimates this early in the election season are about as reliable as North Dakota weather forecasts. Nevertheless, we offered some.

At this point, all we can do is look to North Dakota electoral history and propose specious conclusions.

In the first place, we can assume that the Republican candidate for president, regardless of name or gender, will carry North Dakota in 2012. He has in every election since 1964 – and that’s a 50-year track record. So you can safely put your money on that prospect.

Over the past few elections, the Republican candidate has carried North Dakota on average with 58 percent of the vote. The Democratic candidate has been averaging around 39 percent.

Republican candidates for state and legislative offices have usually run behind their presidential candidates by 5 to 10 percentage points, while Democratic candidates have run ahead of their presidential candidates by 10 to 15 percent. (This was reversed temporarily in 2004 and 2008, but my guess is that it will go back to normal in 2012.)

These figures tell us that the presidential candidates have practically no coattails and that other factors are more important. Because North Dakota is a small state, political competition is influenced more by personal reputations than by presidential candidates.

Many North Dakota voters think independently regardless of party. Republican voters cast ballots for Democratic candidates, otherwise Democrats wouldn’t be running ahead of their presidential candidates. It also explains why Republican North Dakota had an all-Democrat congressional delegation for so many years.

While the presidential candidates may not have coattails, they influence the level of turnout. This could be a major factor in 2012 since recent polls indicate that 44 percent of the Democrats are less enthusiastic about the 2012 election than they were in 2008. Many of them may just stay home.

In 2008, McCain, with 53 percent of the vote, ran behind this historic Republican average by 6 percent, while Obama, with 45 percent, ran 6 percent ahead of the Democrat average. Obama was only the third Democrat since 1964 to break 40 percent.

Even with this strong showing for a Democrat, the North Dakota Senate remained unaffected, and Republicans lost only three seats in the House. Historically, the Republican presidential candidate has had to run at 60 percent or more to gain legislative seats.

If the Democratic candidate for president falls back to the historic average of 39 percent and the Republican average goes back up to 58 percent, only one Republican seat (District 12 – Jamestown) and one Democratic seat (District 42 – Grand Forks) look competitive. All other 2008 Senate races were so lopsided that all incumbents look safe in 2012.

Contests for House seats will be a little different because 14 Republican and five Democratic House seats were won by less than 3 percent of the vote in 2008. If Obama doesn’t run as well in 2012 as he did in 2008, most of these Republican seats will be safe, and most of the Democratic seats will be in danger.

When it comes to candidates for state offices, the past 10 elections tell us there were 59 incumbents running, and only 11 (19 percent) of them were defeated. None of the incumbents lost in the past three elections. It looks like Democrats will need a major lift to gain state offices in 2012.

Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired

University of North Dakota political science teacher.