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MIKE JACOBS: Comparing elections makes good sport

Comparing elections is a game that draws on the academic disciplines of history, political science, psychology and sociology. Some guesswork is thrown in and perhaps a little bias--to the player's own taste, of course.

Mike Jacobs
Herald Publisher Mike Jacobs

Comparing elections is a game that draws on the academic disciplines of history, political science, psychology and sociology. Some guesswork is thrown in and perhaps a little bias-to the player's own taste, of course.

Presto! There's insight into voter behavior.

It's good sport.

The game is especially appealing because it can be played with elections in the past, present and future.

Herald Opinion Editor Tom Dennis played this game last week ("Grand Forks residents support 'what works,' reject what doesn't," editorial, Page A4, June 21). Dennis compared two elections that occurred simultaneously, the North Dakota gubernatorial primary and the Grand Forks mayoral election.

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Doug Burgum, presenting himself as the outsider running against a career politician, won the primary. Michael Brown, veteran of 16 years as mayor of Grand Forks, was re-elected. The first showed unhappiness with the way the state has been managed, Dennis concluded. The second showed approval of how Brown has run the city.

The results may have suggested something else as well. Turnout in Grand Forks was about 22 percent. That means more than three-fourths of potential voters didn't bother. Does complacency equal satisfaction?

Brown was first elected in 2000, the first mayoral election after the 1997 Red River flood. He defeated Pat Owens, the Flood Mayor. Ahead of that election, the Herald's editorial urged voters to "take a risk" and elect Brown. They took the Herald's advice, and by and large, they've been happy with the choice.

This year's gubernatorial primary was a kind of echo of the 2000 mayoral race. Voters took a risk and picked Burgum.

The primary was a more distant echo of another historic election in the state, as Bismarck Tribune reporter Jenny Schlecht pointed out a day after Burgum's unanticipated landslide. The same thing occurred a century earlier, in 1916. Lynn J. Frazier won the Republican nomination in that primary. Kim Porter, chair of UND's History Department, got into the game, calling this "a brilliant comparison."

Although he did little public campaigning, Frazier won 52 percent of the votes, besting three other candidates and running 16,000 votes ahead of his closest rival. The state's political establishment was stunned.

But the similarities between these elections pretty much end with the surprise.

Frazier was the candidate of the Nonpartisan League, a superbly well-organized voting bloc that had found a farmer to lead its agrarian revolution. That is what the League had in mind-and that is what the League put in play.

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Within a few years, the League had created state-owned businesses that exist today. It also had broadened the political landscape by extending the vote to women. The League also set out to reform public school education.

The election campaign was so stealthy that many of the state's newspapers were hardly aware of the League, its program or its candidates. Aimed almost exclusively at farmers who made up the League membership, the campaign was conducted almost entirely in the League's own newspapers. "Big Biz" was a frequent target.

Burgum had no pre-built organization, as was apparent when he came in third at the Republican State Convention. He won the election with a very visible campaign. Everybody knew about it, but in the end, his success surprised most North Dakotans.

We can be pretty sure Burgum won't be suggesting expanded state ownership of businesses. He's a businessman himself, and he campaigned as a conservative. He says his views on social issues are "evolving." He hasn't weighed in on education issues, but it's safe to imagine that the state's education system will be examined, from pre-school to post-doc.

As it happens, education reform was part of the NPL's undoing. Its superintendent of public instruction ended the practice of letting eighth-grade graduates teach in public schools, and he imposed a state curriculum, which included political material about the League and its programs. He was accused of Bolshevism. The League's policy toward higher education was controversial, too, though not so politically charged.

Frazier was a victim of the reaction against the League. In 1921, he became the first sitting governor of any state to be recalled from office. The next year, Frazier was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served three terms. There he built a record as a progressive that stands out even against the standards of his own time.

He saw a role for government in almost every activity-except making war. Frazier consistently opposed military conscription. He once said he couldn't vote for a draft even in time of war.

This sport of comparing elections not limited to journalists and academics. Candidates play it, too.

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Donald Trump fastened on Britain's decision to leave the European Union soon after the decision was made last week. It's a warning for Hillary Clinton, he said. He even employed his own campaign slogan to describe the British result. "They took their country back," he exclaimed.

Past and present elections are safer fields for this political game, of course. But future becomes past soon enough.

In just 133 days, we'll see how prescient Trump might be.

Jacobs is retired as editor and publisher of the Herald. Readers can reach him at mjacobs@gfherald.com .

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