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Poll: Berg leads Heitkamp in U.S. Senate race

©Copyright 2012

Forum Communications Co.

FARGO - The first independent poll of North Dakota's contested U.S. Senate race shows Republican Rep. Rick Berg has a slim lead over his Democratic opponent six months before the general election.

A Forum Communications Co. poll of 500 likely voters statewide found 51 percent would choose Berg over Democrat Heidi Heitkamp if the general election were held at the time of the survey, conducted May 3 to May 8 by Essman/Research of Des Moines, Iowa.

Heitkamp received 44 percent of likely voters' support, while 5 percent were still undecided.

The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.

A Berg-Heitkamp contest appears to be the most realistic general election match-up, since the poll also indicated Berg should handily win the contested Republican primary next month.

The poll found 65 percent of Republicans statewide planned to vote for Berg in the June 12 primary, while 21 percent would vote for his unendorsed challenger, Duane Sand.

Fourteen percent of those surveyed were undecided at the time of the survey.

In contrast, a general election between Sand and Heitkamp would be closer than a Berg-Heitkamp race, and it could also give Democrats a better chance at victory.

According to Forum Communications' poll, 48 percent of likely voters would vote for Heitkamp, while 45 percent would opt for Sand. Eight percent were undecided in that matchup.

Incumbent Democrat Kent Conrad is retiring from the U.S. Senate this year after representing North Dakota since 1987.

Berg has been campaigning for Conrad's Senate seat since last May, five months after the freshman Republican took office in the U.S. House. He ousted longtime Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy in 2010.

Sand began raising funds for a congressional race in early 2011. He ultimately committed to the Senate race last summer. This is his fourth bid for Congress, after unsuccessful runs against Conrad in 2000 and Pomeroy in 2004 and 2008.

Touting himself as the "unconventional candidate," Sand did not seek the North Dakota Republican Party's endorsement in March, giving Berg full rights to the party's institutional support.

Whoever wins the June primary between Berg and Sand will be the official Republican candidate to take on Heitkamp in November.

Heitkamp is North Dakota's former attorney general. Since she entered the race last fall, Democrats have presented her as their strongest chance to keep the Senate seat.

Nationwide, North Dakota's U.S. Senate seat is one of several highly competitive races that could tip the balance of partisan control in the Senate next year.

The national attention has focused on a Berg-vs.-Heitkamp contest and largely ignored Sand altogether.

Before today, the only poll results publicly released in the Senate race came from state and national Demo-crats, who claimed as recently as late April that Heitkamp led Berg by several percentage points.

Ratings from political experts and national media have been more in line with what Forum Communications' poll found. Most outlets - such as The New York Times, Roll Call and the Rothenberg Political Report - maintain that, while the race will be intensely competitive, Berg has the advantage so far and North Dakota's seat is likely to switch to the Republican column in 2013.

Likely North Dakota voters polled by Forum Communications tended to favor the candidate of their own party affiliation, leaving independent voters up for persuasion.

Of those surveyed, 59 percent planned to vote Republican in the June 12 primary, while 41 percent planned to vote Democrat.

In matchups with either Berg or Sand, Heitkamp won over at least 54 percent of independent voters, the poll found.

In the primary matchup, 71 percent of self-identified Republicans supported Berg compared to 14 percent for Sand. Among independents who said they would vote in the Republican primary, 34 percent supported Sand and 53 percent were for Berg.

Berg had between 60 percent and 70 percent of the support in all age groups and among both men and women.

Heitkamp had support from 49 percent of female voters, while Berg received 45 percent from women. Berg had 58 percent support among male voters, compared to 38 percent of men who backed Heitkamp.

Breaking down the poll results by age, Berg won the most support of those under age 65, but Heitkamp received the majority of the support from likely voters older than 65.

Between Heitkamp and Sand, Heitkamp was more likely to win support from both women and middle-aged voters.

Heitkamp won over 55 percent of the women, while Sand had 52 percent of the men's support.

Heitkamp has the most support from likely voters ages 31 to 65, while Sand had the higher percentage of support from voters age 30 and younger.

Heitkamp and Sand were tied at 47 percent each in receiving support from voters 65 and older.

About the poll

• Forum Communications Co. commissioned Essman/Research, an independent research firm in Des Moines, Iowa, to poll North Dakota residents on two initiated measures on the ballot June 12 and the evolving matchups in the U.S. House and Senate races.

• The poll gathered information from 500 likely voters in the state between May 3 and May 8.

• Of that sample, 392 surveys were completed on land line telephones, and 108 surveys were completed on cellphones.

• The confidence level of the poll is 95 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percent.

• Essman developed the survey and the random sample and conducted the polling.

ForumComm ND Polling FINAL Summary Report 12-15