FARGO, N.D.--Barack Obama's campaign stop here on July 3 raises the question of whether the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee really expects to win rural states in the Plains, the Mountain West, and the South.
North Dakota last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 1964, when President Johnson was being challenged by Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz. Before then, the state hadn't supported a Democrat for the White House since 1936, when President Roosevelt won his second term.
Democratic contenders in recent decades have largely ignored the Plains states, devoting what little time they have spent in rural areas to Rust Belt states such as Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, where sparsely populated areas can provide the margin of victory if the party produces big turnouts in the cities and suburbs.
But this year, Obama's campaign worked hard to win primaries and caucuses in the Plains and Mountain states. And he is continuing to campaign in some rural states.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., was one of the first of several senators in Plains states to endorse Obama, and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., followed suit. Some analysts have contended that Obama's early endorsement from former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota may have influenced Conrad, Dorgan, and other rural-state Democrats such as Sens. Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Some say the deciding factor was fear that a woman at the top of the ticket, particularly Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, would have been bad for other Democratic candidates.
In an interview, Conrad said he endorsed Obama because he is "an exceptional person.... He can bring us together." Conrad added that he finds Obama "very Midwestern. His mother was born in Kansas."
Before a crowd of 1,000 people in Fargo, Obama talked about the need for better veterans programs and emphasized his family's Midwestern roots. Without America's commitment to its servicemen and -women, Obama said, "I might not be here today. My grandfather Stanley Dunham enlisted after Pearl Harbor and went on to march in Patton's Army. My grandmother worked on a bomber assembly line while he was gone, and my mother was born at Fort Leavenworth. When he returned, it was to a country that gave him the chance to go to college on the GI Bill; to buy his first home with a loan from the [Federal Housing Administration]; to move his family west, all the way to Hawaii, where he and my grandmother helped raise me."
Obama did not mention his African father or his biracial heritage. But an African-American woman asked him if he would consider redecorating the Lincoln Bedroom with kente cloth. Obama responded, "No. That was an easy one." He added, however, that when as a new senator he toured the Lincoln Bedroom he was surprised to see a flat-screen TV, and said that if he moves into the White House he might remove it. "You should read or something when you're in the Lincoln Bedroom," Obama said. "Reread the Gettysburg Address. Don't watch TV!"
That bit of spontaneity charmed the audience, but Obama will have to work hard to win over voters in North Dakota and other rural states. At the rally, Rep. Earl Pomeroy, North Dakota's lone member of the House, emphasized that the state's entire congressional delegation is Democratic, and said that past Democratic presidential candidates have been mistaken to write his state off. "If you have common sense, North Dakota will give you a chance," Pomeroy said.
Conrad, Dorgan, and Pomeroy revved up the crowd. Obama supported the farm bill and ethanol subsidies, they pointed out, while presumptive GOP nominee John McCain opposed both. Audience members asked Obama about the Iraq war, health care, and education, but not about the farm bill, however. That might be a bad sign for the Democrats. Commodity prices are high; the farm economy is good. Farmers are more likely to vote Democratic when they need government help.
A recent Dakota Wesleyan University poll showed Obama trailing McCain by only 6 points in North Dakota. McCain has not visited the state. Gary Emineth, chairman of the North Dakota Republican Party, told a Fargo newspaper, "The request [to the McCain camp] is out there. I guess we'll see how the election unfolds."
This article appears in the July 12, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.