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Lloyd Omdahl, Published October 21 2012

Omdahl: History’s guide for 2012

Every election is different, so it is risky to place too much faith in speculation based on past elections. This is more true about North Dakota than many other states because personalities impact our elections to a greater degree. However, with interest in the election rising, I’m going to throw my historical fodder into the electoral mix again.

On the basis of past elections, it is safe to say that Mitt Romney will carry North Dakota. We are not a battleground state.

In most previous elections, Republican state candidates have run behind their presidential candidates while Democratic candidates have run ahead. This means that Republicans get the benefit of a presidential groundswell while Democrats struggle with a liability.

Since 1964, Republican candidates averaged 54 percent while their presidential candidates averaged 57 percent. On the Democratic side, state candidates averaged 46 percent while their presidential candidates averaged 39 percent. The Democratic presidential candidate creates a 7 percent liability.

This explains the advertising strategies in the U. S. Senate race. The Rick Berg campaign is doing everything possible to tie Heidi Heitkamp to Obama, and Heidi is doing her best to declare independence from Obama.

When it comes to the four lower state offices on the ballot this year, the only Democrat who won one of these offices in the past three presidential elections (2000, 2004, 2008) was state Treasurer Kathi Gilmore. She was saved by being an incumbent. Usually, the Republicans sweep these offices.

Incumbency is a big factor. Since 1964, we have had 67 incumbents running for the partisan state offices – 55 (82 percent) won re-election and 12 (18 percent) lost. This year, of the four comparable offices, three are occupied by incumbents and one is open.

History tells us that the incumbents – state Auditor Bob Peterson, state Treasurer Kelly Schmidt and Insurance Commissioner Adam Hamm – will very likely win, with the open Public Service Commission seat being contested by Randel Christmann and Brad Crabtree up for grabs.

When it comes to the legislative races, Republican candidates for president carry legislators into office whenever they win by 61 percent or more.

In 1972, 1980, 1984 and 2000, the Republican candidates carried North Dakota by 61 percent or more and won legislative seats every year. However, in 1968, 1976, 1988 and 2008, the Republican candidates won with less than 61 percent and lost legislative seats.

History says that if Mitt Romney wins by 60 percent or more, several Democratic legislative seats will be in danger. If Obama gets more than 40 percent of the vote, a larger number of Republican seats will be in danger because the Republicans have such large majorities in both houses.

Since the legislative districts have been changed since 2008, it is difficult to identify specific seats that could be in trouble. One thing we do know: Few, if any, state Senate seats will change. In 2008, 21 of the 22 contested Senate winners took their offices by 10 percent or more.

The only Senate seat that was close and may change hands is District 12 (Jamestown area), where Republican Sen. Dave Nething won by a handful of votes and is retiring.

With new district boundaries and multiple House candidates running in each district, it is difficult to identify the House seats that would be affected by the level of the presidential vote. Nevertheless, if Romney runs 60 percent or less, history says that Republicans will lose a seat or two.

On the whole, it looks like the 2012 election in North Dakota will deviate very little from the past.


Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@q.com