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Why do Sanders and Clinton care about North Dakota?

FARGO--North Dakota offers a microscopic share of the delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination for president, a race few observers see as close. Yet Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton both seem invested in a victory in the state when it ...

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Almost two thousand people showed with some being left outside to hear Bernie Sanders speak at the Ramada Inn in Fargo on Friday, May 13, 2016. Photo by Joshua Komer/Forum News Service.

FARGO--North Dakota offers a microscopic share of the delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination for president, a race few observers see as close. Yet Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton both seem invested in a victory in the state when it votes next month.

Just this week, the Clinton campaign announced the opening of a Fargo office and named a state director, Marcella Jewel. The campaign also said former President Bill Clinton would stump for his wife here on May 20.

Meanwhile, Sanders himself made three appearances in North Dakota on Friday, May 13, including a rousing speech to about 1,800 people in south Fargo.  In Fargo, Sanders urged the crowd to deliver him a win in the North Dakota Democratic caucus on June 7, the last major day of voting in the primary season.

Political scientists say there are a number of reasons why the Democratic presidential candidates would spend resources in North Dakota instead of battling it out in more delegate-rich states such as California, which also votes June 7.

For Sanders, there is no option but to campaign in all the remaining contests because he is desperate to chip away at Clinton's commanding lead, said Barbara Headrick, a political science professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

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The Vermont senator's chances of winning the nomination are remote, but he hopes his continued presence on the campaign trail and at the convention puts pressure on Clinton from the left. From that perspective, winning more states could give oomph to his argument.

"He continues to tell his supporters that he has a chance to win. I'm not sure how much he believes that, because it's a very, very, very small chance. But the more delegates he can get, the more influence he might have on the party platform going forward," Headrick said.

Sanders trails Clinton in pledged delegates 1,433 to 1,716. Counting superdelegates, Clinton's lead is much wider. It takes 2,383 to win the nomination.

Mark Jendrysik, a political science professor at the University of North Dakota, wasn't surprised Sanders decided to spend a day campaigning in North Dakota, even though the deep-red state is essentially a nonfactor in the Democratic Party nationally. The state will have only 23 delegates at the Democratic National Convention, less than 0.05 percent of the 4,763 available.

"North Dakota's delegates are not going to be pivotal in any Democratic convention ever," he said. Sanders's goal is "more spreading his message and continuing to build what he sees as a movement."

If Sanders wins the state's caucus, "It would certainly add to his claim that, 'The views I represent should be listened to,' " Jendrysik said.

Sanders has said that he may have a shot at the nomination if superdelegates--Democratic party leaders who can vote for whoever they want--shift their support from Clinton to him. But Headrick said that was a pipe dream, and would only be possible in the unlikely event Sanders surpasses Clinton in pledged delegates.

Though he's not aware of any statewide polls in the Democratic race, Jendrysik said he expects Sanders will win in North Dakota. He's done well in whiter-than-average, low-population states that eschew a primary in favor of a caucus, which tends to reward candidates with more fervent supporters.

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The Clinton campaign's decision to have the former president, Hillary Clinton's top surrogate, headline a Fargo rally on Friday, May 20, was probably a direct reaction to Sanders coming, Jendrysik said.

"It's bad to be seen as ignoring the state," he said.

A similar dynamic was at play in 2008 when then-Sen. Barack Obama, who had already won the caucus in the state, was announced as the keynote speaker at the North Dakota Democratic state convention. Nearly two weeks after Obama announced his appearance at the convention in Grand Forks, Clinton also secured a speaking spot at the convention.

Perhaps in a similar vein, a few days after Donald Trump supporter Ben Carson was added as a speaker at this year's North Dakota Republican state convention, Sen. Ted Cruz announced he also would visit the convention.

On whether it would be smart for Hillary Clinton to show up herself, Headrick said it would depend on her priorities as she looks ahead to the fight with the Republican nominee, who is virtually guaranteed to be Donald Trump.

"I think it's a matter of resources for her, whether she thinks it's worth it, related to the general election at this point," Headrick said.

Regardless of the motivations, campaigning in a state like North Dakota that rarely sees a presidential race up close is efficient in some sense, low-cost and high-impact, Jendrysik said.

"You're going to be on the front page of every newspaper," he said.

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