North Dakota Badlands

On the Road For Heidi Heitkamp

One New Yorker’s Campaign Adventures in Bismarck, North Dakota

By Daisy Prince

I recently returned home from Bismarck, North Dakota where I was canvassing for Democratic incumbent, Senator Heidi Heitkamp. Rarely have I had an experience as uplifting as the one I just experienced over the last few days.

Over the last six months (since the 2016 election really) I’ve felt increasingly despondent about how polarized our country has become. As the midterm elections approached, I felt powerless and anxious and knew I wanted to do something about it.

I chose Heidi because I really like how she does her job. I don’t agree personally with her on everything. As a moderate Democrat, she votes across party lines a lot to garner bipartisan support. And she’s done it too, she’s passed bills under Trump that have benefited the people of North Dakota.

But that’s not why I got on a plane to come out. I got on a plane because she voted “no” to Kavanaugh for his lack of decorum in the Senate hearings, and because she accepted accountability for the mistake her team with their sexual assault ad. She is not perfect. But as a leader, she has integrity, one of the most important qualities of all.

Lastly, I wanted to meet people from a completely different part of the country and to ascertain, for myself, how they were thinking and feeling about the political situation in our country. So much of what we read is angry and online, I felt that some good old-fashioned IRL experiences must be the only way to know what’s really going on out there.

How effective was I? Truthfully, I have no idea. Human interactions can’t be measured with clicks and page views but a lot of people said they would think again about their decision. A few said they would definitely vote for Heidi. But it’s just you and you alone in that ballot box and no one will really know until the election is over.

So here are my ten takeaways from canvassing for Heidi Heitkamp, Bismarck, North Dakota

1.Meeting people in Bismarck is like going on a kindness vacation or to a sweetness spa.

I wish we could bottle some of that charm and sprinkle it on our New York salads. Republican or Democrat, 99% of people whose doors I knocked on were incredibly gracious. They would invite me into their houses, share their anecdotes about Heidi and tell me that I was lucky not to be there in January when the snow reaches up to 58 inches.

2.No one’s political leanings could be predicted on appearance.

Some people I was convinced were going to be for Heidi’s opponent Kevin Cramer turned out to be massive Heidi fans and vice-versa. (She is “Heidi” to everyone here, whereas her opponent is always “Cramer.” I’d like to think that’s because people feel she is so personable.) No matter who they were voting for they all took time to talk to me, even if it was just to say they didn’t talk to Democrats.

3.If you are not a dog person then political canvassing is probably not for you.

Nearly everyone had a dog, sometimes two. And they were all as varied as their owners, and like their owners, unfailingly friendly. And just as appearances weren’t indicators of how people would vote, you couldn’t predict political persuasion by their type of dog. The biggest Republican men had the smallest dogs. There were only two cats. One was hairless, a conversation which took about ten minutes in and of itself.

4.Canvassing is ideal for goal-oriented New Yorkers

You are given a “turf” a sheet which has about 30 or 40 addresses and up to 60 names. Also, a script about the politicians you are supporting for more information should you need to refer “down the ballot” — meaning the other candidates who are running for Congress, State Senate, Tax Commissioner and so on. Mostly, you chat about what you already know, attempt to get their political opinions which most people are willing to share in person. After ascertaining how you think they’ll vote, you circle a set of numbers from one to 5 indicating “strong supporter” to “least” and or “not home” and move onto the next. Each turf takes between 2–3 hours to complete. It’s like a SAT test that you score 1600 points on just for finishing.

5. “Uff-da” is really something people really say

It basically means “wow” or “my goodness” and typically is interjected after hearing a piece of information. Like, I didn’t know that Heidi supports not only farmer’s rights and veterans but also a woman’s right to choose, Uff-da!

6.There is no point in playing six degrees of separation in North Dakota.

North Dakota is so sparsely populated (only 755,393 people live here according to the last consensus report) that everyone seems to have a personal connection to the candidates which makes them deeply invested in the whole thing. There were a lot of stories that started with, “I knew Heidi from her time as a Attorney General” or “I sat behind Cramer’s family on a plane.” It’s quite an alien feeling for someone coming from a city of 8 million where our politicians simply aren’t as present in our daily lives.

7. In this race, women are the ones to convince.

Women were the most open to conversation and the least likely to have made their minds up, which is why canvassing them was so important. It was after conversations with undecided women that I felt I’d had the most traction. In general, excluding a couple of memorable surprises, men 50 and older were voting Republican (although many were lumping Heidi in with “the Democrats” as a party rather than personally being opposed to her) but the younger women, particularly moms aged 25 to 45 were willing to talk about the issues that matter to them and where Heidi’s #metoo mistake factored into their decision.

8.Cool Bismarck Millennials all sport the same shade of deep fuchsia hair

There are a lot of millennials in this town. North Dakota has to be one of the fastest growing populations, 12.3% since 2010, and those are mostly younger people who tend to vote Democrat. This has been a deep Red state for years but people say that they could see it turning Purple in the next 20 years, like their hair.

9. The voter ID situation could really affect this vote

One of the other reasons I hopped on a plane is that, even more than money, the Democratic in North Dakota party needs people. The recent voter ID law disproportionately affected the Democratic Native American communities, many of whom don’t have fixed addresses on their reservations. The tribal leaders are fighting this by giving free ID cards, but they need people to drive the constituents to the vote. There is an important tribal election on the Reservation the same day as Election Day and it’s imperative to get voters between the two locations in order to cast their ballots.

10. America is really great.

This trip restored my faith in my fellow Americans. I had terrific conversations with people, was welcomed everywhere, and found the common ground I’d thought we’d lost. There are 12 days left before the midterms and I implore you to go out and canvas for yourself, whether you are Democrat or Republican, because talking to someone face-to-face, even if their views are wildly opposed to yours, is the only way to begin to meet in the middle.

I’ll end this with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut one of the organizers put on their inspiration sheet.

“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let the pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.”