Speaking out: Caucus results reveal political diversity in North Dakota

Speaking out: Caucus results reveal political diversity in North Dakota

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On March 10, the North Dakota Republican Party and the Democratic-Nonpartisan League held their respective presidential caucuses. Trump was the only Republican presidential candidate seeking NDGOP support. Meanwhile, a dozen presidential candidates initially sought support from Dem-NPL voters. By the time caucus day rolled around, all but three Democratic candidates (Biden, Sanders, and Gabbard) had dropped out -- leaving Biden and Sanders as the “viable” candidates.

However, 15% of Dem-NPL voters caucused by mail in the preceding weeks, prior to dropouts. Thus, mail ballots account for most of the votes for Warren, Klobuchar, Buttigieg and Bloomberg. Finer-grained caucus results give us a glimpse into North Dakotans’ truly diverse preferences. While mail voters are not representative of all Dem-NPL voters, their votes are still worth learning from: Sanders received a clear plurality (878 votes by mail). Biden did well (580 votes), and Warren (283) and Klobuchar (212) had many supporters, too. Buttigieg (144) performed a little better than Bloomberg (103).

I asked 17 Dem-NPL voters where they placed these candidates on the political spectrum. Their responses average as follows: Sanders is slightly far-left; Warren is left; Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and Biden are centrist; Bloomberg is center-right. Based on these candidates’ share of votes by mail, that’s 1,161 (53%) votes for the left and 1,039 (47%) votes for the center.

Among North Dakotans who voted in-person on caucus day, a vast majority chose either Sanders (6,804) or Biden (5,162) -- the remaining viable candidates. That’s four Sanders voters for every three Biden voters, a more modest Sanders win compared with his 2016 victory in North Dakota. Biden supporters are no rarity in North Dakota even if Sanders is most popular.

Looking at results by location, Sanders won Fargo, Grand Forks, Minot, Williston, Dickinson and our reservation communities. Biden won Jamestown, Devils Lake, Valley City and Wahpeton. Biden and Sanders virtually tied in Bismarck. These patterns somewhat mirror regional distributions of NDGOP and Dem-NPL voters. In regional Republican strongholds, Dem-NPL voters often favored Biden. In predominantly Democratic regions of North Dakota, Dem-NPL voters often favored Sanders. Nevertheless, there were both Sanders and Biden supporters at each in-person location. No Dem-NPL regional community is in total agreement.

Blogger Rob Port tells us that moderates have left the North Dakota Dem-NPL for the NDGOP, but that isn’t borne out by the facts. Rank-and-file Dem-NPL voters are politically diverse, but they do lean a little more left than center. Furthermore, it seems nobody is leaving the Dem-NPL. The ND Democratic Caucus turnout more than quadrupled from 2016 to 2020, showing that the party is growing, if anything. More likely, 2020’s simpler voting process and vote-by-mail option greatly increased Dem-NPL turnout. Thus, I think the turnout boost is mostly due to ditching the Iowa-style caucus, because accessible voting results in more voters. Democratic presidential campaigns did a good job of mobilizing voters, too. Still, there is zero evidence of Dem-NPL moderates jumping ship to the NDGOP.

Some folks inside and outside of North Dakota are curious about North Dakota's Sanders win given the “Biden surge” seen elsewhere, the many Biden endorsements, and the conservatism North Dakota can be prone toward. I think it’s North Dakota’s populist roots peeking through. Sanders resembles the independent and populist spirit of the historical Nonpartisan League, the third party that merged with the ND Democrats in the 1950s.

It’s also noteworthy that Warren and Klobuchar outperformed Buttigieg in the lead-up to North Dakota's caucuses. North Dakotans may have favored the “old guys,” but votes by mail from February and early March show us that women candidates had their share of enthusiasts, too.

Ellie Shockley is a political psychologist, social scientist and education researcher. This column represents her personal views and not the views of any organization. She completed a doctorate at the University of Chicago and postdoctorate at Nebraska. She lives in Mandan. Find her past columns at EllieShockley.com

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