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Commentary: Cramer up 10? Not so fast, pollster suggests

Mike McFeely, Oct. 17, 2015Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO — There is precedent for a Republican U.S. Senate candidate in North Dakota being given a 10-point polling lead over Democrat Heidi Heitkamp. It didn't end well for the Republican.

Democrats are hoping history repeats itself, as a poll commissioned by NBC North Dakota shows Republican Kevin Cramer leading the incumbent Heitkamp 51 percent to 41 percent, with 8 percent undecided.

That is devastating news for Heitkamp, if the poll is accurate. There's a chance it is. The better chance is that it is not.

Heitkamp was also declared all but dead by a pollster in 2012, the first time she ran. A poll commissioned by The Forum showed Republican Fargo businessman Rick Berg leading Heitkamp 50-40, with 10 percent undecided, just a couple of weeks before Election Day.

Democrats cried foul, saying the poll undersampled their voters. Republicans smiled and declared the poll accurate, even if they knew it wasn't.

The same thing has happened since NBC North Dakota released the poll conducted by Strategic Research Associates of Spokane, Wash.—a marketing firm not known for political polling. Democrats are screaming; Republicans are smug. Partisans are arguing.

There is one voice that, perhaps, to which we should listen a little more closely.

It is that of DFM Research out of the Twin Cities, a political polling firm owned by Dean Mitchell, who almost immediately took to Twitter after the latest poll to offer his own numbers that softly questioned the veracity of NBC North Dakota's poll. DFM later released a memo to the North Dakota Democratic-NPL party that was turned into a press release.

Why should we care what a pollster who is working for the Democrats says?

Because in 2012, DFM was the only polling firm to correctly predict the outcome of the Heitkamp-Berg race. While every other poll had Berg in the lead by varying degrees, by 10 points in The Forum's case, DFM quietly predicted a narrow Heitkamp victory. She won 50.2 percent to 49.3 in a massive upset.

DFM had the statewide race tied 47-47, with 6 percent undecided. But North Dakota is a notoriously difficult state to poll, so DFM breaks it down into specific geographic regions. A bellwether area is Burleigh County, and DFM had Heitkamp ahead by a larger margin than Democrats historically need to win the state. So Mitchell called it for Heitkamp.

This time, DFM's numbers show Heitkamp leading Cramer 55-37 in three eastern cities—Fargo, West Fargo and Grand Forks. That indicates Heitkamp is outperforming her results in those cities in 2012. DFM also released numbers for the rural eastern part of the state that show Heitkamp much more popular than Cramer.

Admittedly, DFM has not yet polled Burleigh County or the western part of the state, which is much more Republican than the east.

But the point is, the only research firm to correctly predict Heitkamp winning six years ago is saying it's likely (but not guaranteed) this year's race is closer to a toss-up than a 10-point landslide.

We'll find out for sure on Nov. 6.

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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