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Trailing Cramer, Heitkamp aims to defy polls - again

Congressman Kevin Cramer tosses a football to a spectator at the 2018 Potato Bowl/Homecoming parade in downtown Grand Forks. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service1 / 2
North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp talks with the Grand Forks Herald editorial board in August. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service2 / 2

BISMARCK — After winning her U.S. Senate seat six years ago, Heidi Heitkamp triumphantly held up a copy of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead weeks after the state's largest newspaper published poll results showing her trailing her Republican opponent by 10 points.

Heitkamp, a Democrat, is hoping for another Dewey-defeats-Truman moment next month. She shrugged off public polls showing her behind Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, noting that President Donald Trump was expected to lose in 2016.

"If polls decided elections, I don't think the president would be president," she said Thursday, Oct. 11, suggesting that "the art of polling has not caught up with the new kind of way that we communicate and the new way that we respond."

Heitkamp acknowledged she's facing "headwinds" in a Republican-dominated state that Trump won easily, but expressed confidence in her campaign's on-the-ground efforts.

"People always ask me, 'How can you win in North Dakota?' I say, 'Because I know how to count votes,'" she said.

Real Clear Politics' average of polling results so far shows Cramer holding a 50.7 percent to 42 percent lead, with two of the most recent polls putting his lead in the double digits — 10 points and 12 points.

The RCP average late in the 2012 race put then-Congressman Rick Berg, a Republican, ahead by 5.7 points, but Heitkamp won the race by a razor-thin margin.

"Polls are a snapshot in time, so this is not a prediction," said Larry Jacobs, a professor in the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. "I completely accept that the final result could be different, but I would say at this point, Heitkamp is in serious trouble."

The Democratic-NPL countered recent polling news by releasing internal numbers from Dean Mitchell, a Minnesota-based pollster, showing Heitkamp with a 14-point lead in the eastern region of the state, where he said 45 percent of the state's expected voters are based. He said he hasn't yet done polling for the western part of the state, including Bismarck and Minot, but the eastern polling from second half of September indicates the race is tight.

Mitchell said Heitkamp's 2012 polling figures in Burleigh County, where Bismarck is located, helped him correctly predict the outcome of that election.

"I personally believe it's much tighter than those two surveys suggest," Mitchell said, referring to the polls released by Valley News Live and Fox News. But he hesitated to cast any doubts on other polls' methodology.

Berg, who's now the state Republican Party chairman, said the favorable public polling in 2012 wasn't any cause for relaxation in part because internal numbers suggested the race was closer. He warned that having a polling lead might prompt complacency among a candidate's supporters.

"To some degree, if the public thinks you're a 10-point favorite, some of those people aren't as motivated to go out and vote," Berg said.

Cramer echoed that concern but said he's sticking to a campaign strategy of retail politics and meeting voters face-to-face in the final weeks of the campaign.

"Four weeks is a lifetime in politics," he said. "I think (the polls are) reflecting what's going on on the ground, but the ground shifts."

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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