BISMARCK — The fate of the 2020 presidential election was still hanging in the balance by Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 4, but President Donald Trump’s sustained appeal in North Dakota was clear early on election night.
While Trump’s wide victory in North Dakota came as little surprise to most viewers, it dashed Democratic hopes that the pandemic’s toll could put a dent into the president’s iron grip on the state.
In a record-breaking year for North Dakota turnout, Trump drew an even larger share of the state’s vote than four years ago. And Republicans expanded their majority in the state Legislature and chipped away at Democratic vote shares in comparatively liberal outposts like Grand Forks and other eastern counties. Of the states reporting final tallies on Wednesday, North Dakota broke for Trump over Joe Biden by a wider margin than all but three states in the country.
For many of the state's politicos, Tuesday night revealed just how deep Trump's populist persuasion is in North Dakota. "That has broader appeal than any of us ever imagined," said longtime political observer and Grand Forks Herald columnist Mike Jacobs.
Trump collected 65% of the vote in North Dakota, according to a final tally reported by the secretary of state on Wednesday, compared to just 32% for Biden. And while national observers had broadly predicted that the COVID-19 pandemic would deliver a blow to Trump’s 2016 support, that didn’t happen in North Dakota, where Trump actually improved on his previous standing by about 2 points. Notably, Biden collected 5 percentage points more than Hillary Clinton did four years ago, and it’s possible that both vote shares rose because of a weaker third party front this year.
Still, Trump’s North Dakota appeal was resilient through his presidency, even in the face of a pandemic that turned the national economy on its head and resulted in more than 560 deaths and counting in the state.
Mark Jendrysik, a political science professor at the University of North Dakota, said this result should not come as much surprise: North Dakotans have generally approved of Trump’s handling of the pandemic. “A lot of people in the state agree with Trump that COVID is overblown and just (like) the flu,” Jendrysik said. “I think his approach to it is seen as strong and powerful and not fearful and weak. I think that's clear from a lot of people's reaction.”
And to Jacobs, the pandemic may have actually played into Trump’s hand in North Dakota, giving him a bigger stage for his populist expressions. “I think that populist appeal that the president makes, part of that is on the coronavirus,” Jacobs said. “He uses the coronavirus as a way to paint himself as the common man’s friend — the keep-government-out-of-my-face kind of guy.”
While the pandemic didn’t prove to be an electoral bombshell in North Dakota, the state’s large turnout for Trump on Tuesday was the culmination of at least a decade’s worth of shifting demographics. An aging population, combined with an influx of conservative voters from the oil boom, has contributed to a more homogeneous electorate in North Dakota in the last 10 years, Jendrysik argued.
The influence of North Dakota’s expanded energy sector on its presidential preferences looks clear from the results in some western, Oil Patch counties, where the president won by some of his largest margins in the state. Trump racked up more than 80% of the vote in Williams, McKenzie, Billings and Dunn counties.
But it wasn’t that long ago, Jacobs said, that Democrats were putting up competitive statewide fights in North Dakota, and Republican inroads in once blueish Grand Forks districts may also have lowered the ceiling for North Dakota's liberal party. Barack Obama drew 45% of the vote here in 2008, a vote share that has steadily dropped off for Democratic presidential hopefuls in North Dakota in the years since. And while Obama’s 2008 campaign was uniquely successful in some red states, Jacobs noted that other savvy Democrats were running successful statewide races in North Dakota as recently as Heidi Heitkamp’s Senate win in 2012.
In a significant change from those days, Jacobs argued that the Democratic label has become “almost toxic” in North Dakota, drawing more rigid partisan lines over the last few years. “People aren’t looking at individual candidates in the way that they used to look at them,” Jacobs said.
This "solid right turn," as Dana Harsell, another UND political science professor, terms it, predates Trump. But Harsell also noted that Trump’s unique appeal in North Dakota might have helped to solidify a movement that was already in the works.
“That brand of populism — the Trump brand — resonated with North Dakota,” Harsell said, predicting a long road for any Democratic comeback in North Dakota in the wake of this election. And troubles for state Democrats may not be solvable on the local level, according to Harsell — not without a stronger rural message from national Democrats.
"Until the (national) Democratic Party starts to really message that, I think North Dakota will be red for a long time," Harsell said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.