The Uncanny Valley Of Doug Burgum's Ideological Appeal

doug burgum

Here’s the fundamental campaign conundrum Fargo businessman Doug Burgum must solve if he hopes to receive the NDGOP nomination for governor: How to maintain his appeal among left-leaning, urban Red River Valley voters while increasing his appeal in deeply conservative western North Dakota.

It made me think of the uncanny valley, which is an idea in the field of robotics related to how humans react to robots that look humanoid. Humans tend to like robots that don’t look at all like humans, or that look indistinguishable from humans, but present an “uncanny valley” of negative feelings toward robots that look not quite human.

I say this not to paint Burgum – who is quite genial and authentic in person – as a robot. Rather, my intent is to illustrate the unique ideological “valley” he finds himself in.

Right now it is assumed, probably correctly (I haven’t seen any polling), that Burgum has a lot of appeal among liberal-leaning voters in the eastern part of the state. Burgum, after all, has been something of a media darling in the Fargo area and he’s socially liberal.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]What’s worse for a political candidate than taking a position voters disagree with is being perceived as less than forthcoming about that issue. Burgum should just be himself and shoot straight.[/mks_pullquote]

But the urban Red River Valley vote is not going to be enough to put him over the top, especially in a Republican primary even if it is invaded by a significant number of Democrat voters crossing over from their own moribund ballot. And this competition will be settled in the Republican primary, I believe. Even in the unlikely event of Burgum winning a majority of delegates at the NDGOP’s April convention in Fargo, something even Burgum himself has said he doesn’t expect to happen, I expect Stenehjem and possibly Becker too will renege on their previous promises to abide by the convention’s outcome.

Burgum must increase his appeal in western North Dakota (which, for his purposes, probably begins about five miles west of downtown Fargo) in order to win the Republican primary. The question is, how does he do that without discouraging his supporters in the Fargo area? How does he increase support among more conservative Republican voters without decreasing it among more liberal Republicna voters?

Thus, the uncanny valley Burgum may be stuck in.

There are two ways he can address this problem.

First, he should just own the parts of his platform which aren’t going to appeal to more conservative voters. His support for gay marriage? His support for abortion? His other socially liberal positions? These aren’t secrets. Voters are aware of them, or will be made aware of them by Burgum’s opponents.

So far Burgum has seemed a little skittish when it come to talking about them on the campaign trail, telling questioners that he doesn’t want to focus on divisive topics. That sort of thing is going to come off as evasive. What’s worse for a political candidate than taking a position voters disagree with is being perceived as less than forthcoming about that position.

Burgum should just be himself and shoot straight.

Second, Burgum should focus his energy on talking about issues that will appeal to North Dakota voters. Unfortunately, at these early stages of his campaign, we still have a lot to learn about where Burgum is at, specifically, on issues like taxes and spending and energy development.

There has to be some reason why Burgum has spent years and tens of thousands of dollars supporting Republican candidates. There must be something which makes him identify as a Republican. Burgum should try to talk about the things he feels makes him a Republican as opposed to those things on which he disagrees with most Republicans.

Burgum won’t be doing this in a vacuum. He must do it while competing against Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who already has mountainous advantages in terms of name recognition and electoral pedigree, and state Rep. Rick Becker who probably has a lot of overlap in support among the NDGOP’s socially liberal/libertarian circles (Burgum better hope Becker stays off the June ballot).

If Burgum can solve this problem he has a decent chance of winning the NDGOP primary.  But it’s an extremely difficult problem to solve.

Rob Port is the editor of, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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