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Lloyd Omdahl, Published December 02 2012

Omdahl: If voters like you, you’re in

After ranking Gov. Rick Perry of Texas as the worst candidate in 2012, The Washington Post turned around and proclaimed Heidi Heitkamp as the best.

The Post pointed out that Mitt Romney garnered 58 percent of the 323,000 votes in North Dakota while Barack Obama received only 39 percent. The Post was impressed with Heitkamp’s ability to overcome this gap of 19 percent and make it to a bare 50 percent plus.

Overcoming a gap left by the presidential candidates isn’t big news in North Dakota. To win a national office, Democrats have always had to run 8 or 9 percent ahead of the Democratic presidential candidate to win a state or national office.

Heitkamp’s achievement was significant because she had to pick up more ground than most Democrats to close the gap. And this had to be done as the whole state was shifting more and more into the Republican column.

But we need to keep the presidential statistics in perspective. Romney’s margin over Obama was not unusually large. It was not a Reagan landslide. In North Dakota, the average vote cast for Republican presidential candidates has been around 58 percent – the same as recorded in 2012.

The Post alluded to “Berg’s flaws” as the cause of his defeat without mentioning specifics. That was not a fair comment. As written, we don’t know what these alleged flaws were.

As far as the Berg campaign strategy was concerned, it was the best possible. Recognizing that Obama was not popular in North Dakota, the Berg strategy was to tie Heitkamp to the president and his most unpopular policies. Just because it didn’t bring success is no reason to find fault with it.

The impact of Berg’s early support for Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, which included threats to Medicare and Social Security, has not been quantified as a factor in the election. That could be done by correlating Berg’s vote with the age levels in counties with large numbers of elderly.

Realizing his error, Berg came out strong for Medicare and Social Security in direct mailings and in his campaign advertising. But the first impression stuck, and he never quite got past the problem.

All of this having been said, the most critical feature of the campaign was personality. In North Dakota, who is as important as what. (Never forget that!) Even though a majority of North Dakotans did not like Obama’s national policies, they knew and liked Heitkamp.

Likability has not often been touted as a major campaign asset, but it was paramount in the 2012 election. The Berg strategists conceded that Heidi was likable but they let North Dakota know that her policies may not be.

The voters apparently insisted that they liked Heidi anyway. Among them were many Republicans.

It must be noted that Heitkamp is the third state tax commissioner to go to Washington in recent years. Both Sens. Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad went to Washington after serving in that pedestrian position.

So the citizens’ inherent disdain for taxes did not prevent the collectors of those taxes from being honored with the highest offices North Dakota has to offer.

This bit of political history should be taken seriously by the media in the Bismarck area. They should be camped outside of Tax Commissioner Cory Fong’s office and wait for the inevitable announcement.


Omdahl, a retired political science professor and a former lieutenant governor, writes a column from Grand Forks.