In the 2018 cycle, North Dakota’s Democrats will be trying to take back political ground.
Defending her seat in the U.S. Senate will be Heidi Heitkamp, the only left wing incumbent on the statewide ballot.
In these races, though, Democrats won’t just be running against Republicans. They’ll also be campaigning against an inconvenient mathematical reality.
The Democrats saw turnout for their candidates in North Dakota decline nearly 40 percent from 2012 to 2016.
In the 2012 cycle, Democratic candidates for the Legislature and partisan statewide office together collected over 1.16 million cumulative votes.
In 2016 that number dipped to just 702,856.
After all the votes in the 2012 cycle were tallied Republicans enjoyed a 3-2 advantage in voter turnout over Democrats. For our liberal friends, Senator Heitkamp’s narrow victory over Republican challenger Rick Berg was really the only bright spot in state-level elections.
In the 2016 cycle, however, Republicans enjoyed a 3-1 advantage in turnout. That cycle, I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, was a bloodbath for the Dems.
There aren’t any pleasant explanations for this if you’re a Democrat.
Overall turnout was roughly the same. In 2016 it was just 1.5 percent – or about 44,000 votes – lower than in 2012.
One might be tempted to say that an uninspiring slate of statewide candidates for the Democrats hurt their turnout. Which seems absolutely true, but instead of staying home most of those erstwhile Democrats turned to the Republicans, a trend which began during the primaries.
From 2000 to 2014, the average ratio of Republican to Democratic voters in our state’s June primary elections was about 1.4 in favor of the GOP.
In 2016 that ratio was 5.84.
Voters abandoned Democrats last election cycle, and they did it in droves.
Will those voters flip back to the left in 2018 to help Heitkamp hold her seat?
If anyone can accomplish that feat, it’s Heitkamp. She won in 2012, after all, despite a 3-2 Republican voter advantage.
But she barely won.
And 2018 will be a far more polarized political environment than 2012 was.
And North Dakota’s electorate has shifted even further toward the Republicans.
Republicans still have to field a strong candidate, mind you, and how North Dakota voters are feeling about the first two years of the Trump administration is a big variable I don’t know how to quantify at this point.
Those points aside, though, any win Heitkamp ekes out in 2018 will be harder won than her 2012 victory which in and of itself was a big upset.
Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @RobPort