By Jim EllisMarch 5, 2018 — A new Tarrance Group poll (Feb. 18-20; 500 likely North Dakota registered voters) conducted for the National Republican Senatorial Committee finds at-large Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-Bismarck) taking an early lead over first-term Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D), 49-44 percent, a split just beyond the polling margin of error.
The Tarrance poll comes on the heels of previously released data from Gravis Marketing (Feb. 21-24; 385 North Dakota voters interviewed online) that gives Sen. Heitkamp a 43-40 percent edge, but this survey was conducted wholly online. Though the Tarrance poll was in the field before the Gravis study, the latter data was first to enter the public domain.
North Dakota state law prohibits vendors from placing automated telephone calls, which is Gravis’ usual method of conducting their surveys. Additionally, since the state has no voter registration requirement or system, the likely voter screen is a bit more difficult to define. Both of these elements would affect the reliability factor, and particularly so for the Gravis results.
The Tarrance data also detected a retrogression in Sen. Heitkamp’s favorability rating. Though still strong, her positive ratio is a net 10 points below what was determined in the organization’s October poll. The February data records the senator with a strong 54:38 percent positive to negative index, but that is below the 60:34 percent rating she received in October. Rep. Cramer posted a slightly better 53:29 percent positive ratio. He was not tested in the October poll.
Interestingly, Tarrance finds the electorate here headed in the opposite direction of what is found in most of the country. While media reports continually promote generic polling numbers projecting unnamed Democratic candidates far outpacing unnamed Republicans in terms of vote preference, this poll finds the North Dakota respondents preferring the GOP by a substantial 14-point margin, 48-34 percent.
The North Dakota seat is certainly in the top tier of Republican conversion races, but the contest has been slow to develop. This is somewhat explainable because of the state’s small population, meaning this contest becomes one of the least expensive Senate campaigns in the country. With the potential political players all well known to the electorate, a longer campaign cycle is unnecessary.
For a long while, Rep. Cramer was undecided about entering the Senate race, and even announced his decision to run for re-election. Republican leaders kept trying to recruit the three-term at-large congressman, believing he was their best prospect to challenge Sen. Heitkamp, and two weeks ago he changed his mind and entered the Senate campaign. Now these two polls publicly confirm that the congressman is in strong position and the general election rating must be projected as a toss-up.
Should the Republicans convert any of their offensive opportunities – that is, in the 10 states President Trump carried that now have a Democratic senator standing for re-election – the GOP majority will be secured regardless if Democrats are able to convert their two conversion targets in Arizona and Nevada. Hence, North Dakota is becoming one of the most important states in this election cycle.