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Why Isn’t North Dakota’s Senate Race a Tossup?

Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo

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Two polls conducted by reputable Democratic pollsters show Republican Rep. Rick Berg to be in serious trouble in the North Dakota Senate race, especially now that former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D) has entered the race.

The first survey, conducted in mid-August well before Heitkamp jumped into the contest, was conducted by Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group. It found voters preferring Berg over a Democrat by a mere 4 points — 44 percent to 40 percent — in a generic Senate ballot test.

Only 33 percent of respondents rated Berg’s job performance as good or excellent, while 55 percent termed it only fair or poor. Berg, the prohibitive favorite for his party’s Senate nomination, has dismal personal ratings (31 percent positive to 34 percent negative), suggesting he has problems back home.

“I have been polling in North Dakota since 1985, and Congressman Berg’s personal and performance ratings are the lowest by far I have ever measured for any federally elected official in the state, Republican or Democrat,” veteran Democratic pollster Geoff Garin observed in a polling memo.

The more recent Democratic survey, conducted for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee by the Mellman Group, found Heitkamp leading Berg by 5 points, 47 percent to 42 percent, even though President Barack Obama was trailing potential GOP opponent Mitt Romney by 14 points in the same survey.

Mellman’s poll also found Berg’s job performance ratings (28 percent positive to 56 percent negative) and personal ratings (42 percent favorable to 39 percent unfavorable) much worse than Heitkamp’s job performance ratings as state attorney general (52 percent positive to 28 percent negative) and personal ratings (54 percent favorable to 25 percent unfavorable).

Heitkamp, of course, hasn’t been on the ballot in a decade, and she has never run in a federal election, which invariably has a different dynamic than a state contest. Federal races tend to be more partisan and ideological than state races.

“With Heitkamp already ahead in the horse race and so much more highly regarded than Berg, she is in a very strong position to win this contest,” veteran pollster Mark Mellman said in a memo accompanying the results.

Not surprisingly, the most recent poll produced a series of ratings changes. The DSCC asserted that the North Dakota Senate race now was a tossup. Roll Call moved the race from Safe Republican to Likely Republican, while the Cook Political Report moved it from Likely Republican to Leans Republican.

My own view is much like the Cook Report’s general assessment that “Heitkamp’s entry into the race has turned Democrats’ prospects here from hopeless to having a fighting chance.” But a fighting chance isn’t the same as a tossup.

With two polls showing Berg as unpopular, why not rate the race as a tossup?

The simple answer is that race ratings aren’t merely a reflection of the latest polls. They are based on current information and projections of what the race and the political environment will look like as Election Day nears.

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