Voting Republican has been punishing enough in itself for the residents of both states, where around one in nine residents are infected with COVID-19. Ready for some statistics?
In 2016, Bernie won the North Dakota caucuses 64.2% to 25.6% for Hillary. Democrats were not interested in another 4 years of establishment Democratic non-help. South Dakota held a primary and it was very close-- Hillary 27,046 to Bernie 25,958. The system was rigged to give her 15 delegates and him just 10. When the general came along, Trump beat Hillary in both states-- 64.1% to 27.8% in North Dakota (where she won just 2 of the state's 53 counties). She didn't do quite as badly in South Dakota, where she won 5 of the state's 66 counties and was "only" beaten 61.5% to 31.7%. On that same day, North Dakota voters elected Republican Doug Burgum governor with 76.7% of the vote (and over 40,000 more votes than Trump)
The 2018 anti-red wave never reached the Dakotas. Conservative Republican Kevin Cramer ousted conservative Democrat Heidi Heitkamp from the Senate-- 55.5% to 44.5%-- and then filled his House seat with another right-wing Republican-- who took 60.3% of the vote. In South Dakota, the right-wing sociopath who had been serving in Congress, Kristi Noem, won the gubernatorial race 172,912 (51.0) to 161,454 (47.6%).
And then the pandemic began. Both Noem and Burgum ignored public health advise and were in lockstep with Trump-- nothing to see here. North Dakota is the worst COVID-hot spot on earth-- 108,264 cases per million residents. South Dakota is the second worst-- 96,426 cases per million residents. Even with Iowa governor Kim Reynolds trying, here are no states even close.
After all that pandemic failure and after 4 years of Trump, Dakotans gave him bigger wins last month than they had in 2016-- they wanted even more Trump. He beat Biden in North Dakota 65.5% to 31.9% and he beat Biden in South Dakota 61.8% to 35.6%. Burgum was reelected North Dakota governor with the same number of votes as Trump but with a bigger proportion, 69.2%. In South Dakota 2 marijuana legalization bills passed on the same day-- a medical marijuana bill with 69.9% and a recreational marijuana bill with 54.2%. 411,514 South Dakotans voted for Trump and Biden combined. 417,234 people voted in the medical marijuana referendum and 415,737 voted in the recreational marijuana referendum.
Yesterday, the NY Times published a column by Frank Bruni, Death Came For the Dakotas, who refused to fly to the Dakotas for his reportage. "I don’t have a death wish," he wrote. "Deep into the coronavirus pandemic, when there was no doubt about the damage that Covid-19 could do, the Dakotas scaled their morbid heights, propelled by denial and defiance. They surged to the top of national rankings of state residents per capita who were hospitalized with Covid-related symptoms or whose recent deaths were linked to it. As of Friday afternoon, South Dakota led the country in the average daily number of recent Covid-associated deaths per capita, with three for every 100,000 people, according to a New York Times database. North Dakota was second, with 1.5.
His point is that "The Dakotas are a horror story that didn’t have to be, a theater of American disgrace. Want to understand the tendencies-- pathologies might be the better word-- that made America’s dance with the coronavirus so deadly? Visit the Dakotas. Intellectually, I mean."
The North Dakota state House has 79 Republicans and 15 Democrats. The state Senate has 37 Republicans and 10 Democrats. In South Dakota, the story is even more dire. The state House consists of 62 Republicans and 8 Democrats and the state Senate has 30 Republicans and 5 Democrats. Bruni introduced his readers to Jamie Smith, the leader of the Democratic minority in the South Dakota House. Smith told him that the politicization of social distancing and mask-wearing was "mind-boggling." Many in his state district science and had an "unshakable belief that the virus wouldn’t come for them."
“We’re dug in,” he said when we spoke recently. Of the 10 counties in America with the most Covid-related deaths per capita, three are in South Dakota. The outgoing Republican Speaker of North Dakota's House, Lawrence Klemin, told Bruni that North Dakotans "are pretty much independent-minded about how they conduct their affairs... I don’t know if maybe some people are stubborn." Bruni speculated that "the deep sigh in his voice said that he knows full well that many people are. And the most stubborn, he said, have been the loudest. Throughout the pandemic, he said, he was deluged with communications from constituents adamantly opposed to any mask-wearing requirement, which North Dakota didn’t even have. He heard almost nothing from the other side. But after Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican, used an executive order on Nov. 13 to institute precisely such a mandate, a poll showed that a significant majority of North Dakotans favored it. Maybe they’d just seen too much dying by then. Or maybe, Klemin conceded, they’d been a silent majority for a while and political leaders underestimated their fellow citizens."
That silent majority sure didn't turn out for Biden on election day. COVID may have been politicized... but not enough to keep Trump from winning even more votes than he had in 2016.
Klemin conceded that his state definitely should have mask mandate last spring or summer-- "before the number of coronavirus cases skyrocketed, before hospitals were so overrun that sick North Dakotans had to be sent to neighboring states and before his own mother tested positive and died in early October. Until recently, Governor Burgum was loath to exert much pressure on North Dakotans and steered clear of the social-distancing orders put in place by so many other states. But he did invest heavily in testing and never merrily shrugged off the threat of the coronavirus the way his Republican counterpart in South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem, did. Deaths and hospitalizations have dropped significantly in North Dakota over the past two weeks. On Friday evening, it ranked just ninth among states for the percentage of its residents hospitalized with Covid-19."
South Dakota, in contrast, was No. 1. Still no mask mandate there, and no leadership at all from Noem, who didn’t just welcome but beckoned President Trump to Mount Rushmore for that enormous Independence Day rally, the one at which his perpetually maskless entourage clustered near a similarly maskless crowd. Kimberly Guilfoyle, Donald Trump Jr.’s romantic partner, tested positive then, compelling the two of them to go into isolation. Sadly, they didn’t remain there.
One month later, Noem played cheerleader for a 10-day motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D., that attracted some 460,000 people. In an article in The Times, my colleagues Mark Walker and Jack Healy described it as “a Woodstock of unmasked, uninhibited coronavirus defiance.”
Just before Thanksgiving, Noem announced the passing of her 98-year-old grandmother, one of 13 residents of a South Dakota nursing home who died in a two-week period. The home’s administrator told the Daily Beast that the other 12 residents, along with many of the nursing home’s workers, had tested positive for the coronavirus, but not Noem’s grandmother. (Hmmm …) While Noem publicly mourned her lost family member, she drew no particular attention to Covid-19’s rampage among her grandmother’s companions.
I get the sense that Noem has presidential aspirations (though she has denied that). If she ever presses the accelerator on those, please remember this savage season, and please remember her damning indifference to it.
When I said “horror story,” I was cribbing. That was a description used in a series of mid-November tweets from a South Dakota emergency room nurse, Jodi Doering, that went viral. Doering was reeling from tending to dying Covid-19 patients who continued to insist that the coronavirus was some kind of hoax.
They “scream at you for a magic medicine” and warn that Joe Biden will ruin America even as they’re “gasping for breath,” she wrote. She added: “They call you names and ask why you have to wear all that ‘stuff’ because they don’t have Covid because it’s not real.”
“They stop yelling at you when they get intubated,” she wrote. “It’s like a horror movie that never ends.” I altered that last sentence. Doering put a curse word before “horror,” and who can blame her?
On Friday, the U.S. reported 237,372 new cases. Yesterday it was another 208,790 new cases, bringing the total to the brink of 15 million which was breached this morning. "The truth," concluded Bruni, "is that the Dakotas are as emblematic as they are exceptional, the American story-- or at least a strain of it-- in miniature. In resisting the lockdowns, slowdowns and sacrifices that many other states committed to, they indulged and encouraged a selective (and often warped) reading of scientific evidence, a rebellion against experts and a twisted concept of individual liberty that was obvious all over the country and contributed mightily to our suffering. 'North Dakotans will come to each other’s aids in a heartbeat, but when asked to give up personal freedom for an amorphous common good-- that’s difficult,' Paul Carson, an infectious-diseases doctor and a professor of public health at North Dakota State University, told me." Neither Bruni nor Carson addressed why North Dakotans have so much trouble dealing with a simple abstract concept, usually a tell that someone has a very low IQ. Is it because so many people with normal IQ have fled the Dakotas, allowing the left-behinds to remake their society as a virtual kaikistocracy?
"For too long," wrote Bruni, "staying safe from the coronavirus was indeed an amorphous mission to many North and South Dakotans, and their false sense of security was surely intensified by what they heard from President Trump, who spoke of disease-ridden blue states versus freedom-loving red ones and kept promising that this would all blow over. 'We maybe believed that our rural nature sheltered us from what cities like yours were experiencing,' Carson said. 'Then we found out, very brutally, that was wrong.'"
But not self-aware enough to start making things right on November 3.