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3rd-party, independent candidates face uphill battle in N. Dakota: State has high incumbency rate

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When it comes to leading the state of North Dakota, third-party candidates have not had much luck. In the state's 123-year history, all of its governors have been either Democrat or Republican, or affiliated with a supporting party. The same holds true for its representatives and senators in the U.S. Congress.

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Third-party and independent candidates have the most success when they have an established name, said Mark Jendrysik, chairman of the University of North Dakota Department of Political Science and Public Administration in Grand Forks.

One such maneuver, Jendrysik said, is for a candidate endorsed by a party who loses in the primary to run anyway as a third-party candidate.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., did that after losing his state's 2006 Democratic primary, Jendrysik said.

Up until recently, it was difficult for a third-party or independent candidate to even get on the ballot in North Dakota, Minot State University Political Science Professor Jynette Larshus said.

"Historically, North Dakota has had waves of third parties that have had significant influence in the state," she said. "When it comes time to vote, and when it comes time to ballot, they haven't been represented in the ballots the way the major parties have been."

Because her education is in sociology, she looks at political issues through a social context, Larshus said.

The people of North Dakota have received Libertarian House candidate Eric Olson well, he said.

"I got a significantly better response when I added the word 'Libertarian' prominently to my literature," Olson said. "They were more interested when they found out it was for a third party."

The media, however, has not been as receptive to Kevin Cramer's and Pam Gulleson's challenger.

"I got some fairly good coverage early on," Olson said. "Recently, that's kind of fallen back."

He wasn't included in the recent debates held for Republicans and Democrats running for statewide office and was left out of a Forum poll.

"I think the biggest challenge is just letting people know that I'm here and that I am running," Olson said. "I think that there's a lot more people who want a third-party candidate than realize that there is a third-party candidate."

Nationwide and in North Dakota, third-party presidential candidates as of late have not drawn enough votes to affect the race between the two major-party candidates, said Chad Litton, chairman of the Human and Social Science Department at the University of Mary in Bismarck.

"It's about showing voters that they have a choice," he said of the reason for running on a third-party or independent ticket.

Independent gubernatorial candidate Paul Sorum got in the race for that reason.

"I know that people have an open mind, they're going to listen," he said. "This isn't about left or right, this is really about survival in North Dakota and what we can do as a state to help turn the whole country around."

In a few states, a third-party candidate could pull votes away from one of the major-party tickets so the opposite candidate could take the state, Litton said, but North Dakota isn't one of them.

North Dakotans are creatures of habit when it comes to elected officials, Larshus said.

"We have a very high incumbency rate," she said. "In other words, we re-elect people time and time again. We have that perception that the two-party system has worked in the past, so nobody really necessarily questions it."

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Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
(701) 456-1206
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