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Port: Poll shows 76% approve of Burgum's handling of coronavirus outbreak, but there are some caveats

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum joined a virtual 1 Million Cups event Wednesday, April 8, to announce the launch of Care19, a free app North Dakotans can use to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
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MINOT, N.D. -- Dissent against government policies locking down our society is growing.

Here in North Dakota, a group of Republican lawmakers sent Gov. Doug Burgum a letter asking him to lift, or at least let expire, executive orders restricting economic and social activity, and a local group is planning a protest for Monday against the policies.

Are these actions representative of majority sentiments in North Dakota? Based on some (admittedly scant) polling data, the answer is "no" but with a caveat.

Let's look at the data.

We don't have much for North Dakota (more on that in a moment), but we do have three national polls indicating that Americans like how their governors are handling things:


If you're curious, FiveThirtyEight.com has more analysis of these polls, and well as the (far uglier) approval numbers for President Donald Trump.

Unfortunately, none of these surveys have state-by-state details.

There is polling, however, from Microsoft News and Microsoft Research , which measured opinions about the COVID-19 response.

Here in North Dakota, about 76% said they approve of Burgum's handling of the situation. That's the 12th highest rating out of the 50 states.

Now for the caveats.

This poll is more than two weeks old. The coronavirus situation is extremely fluid. The rumblings of dissent against Burgum's COVID-19 actions have only started in the last week or so.

Also, this isn't a straight poll. The methodology used is called multilevel regression and poststratification, and it's a mix of pure polling and statistical modeling. It's also just one poll. One thing I've learned in all the years I've spent writing about public opinion polls it's that they're much more useful in the aggregate. The more data we have, the better.

How much should we care about these numbers? I don't usually advocate for governing based on public opinion polls ( political leaders owe us their judgment, not their obedience ) but this outbreak is a tricky problem.


On the one hand, the coronavirus is a severe threat and ought not to be casually dismissed. It has killed nearly 35,000 nationally, so far, despite what are unprecedented quarantine efforts across the country. North Dakota hasn't been as hard hit as other places, but the virus has still killed nine people, and our daily rate of positive tests has been on the rise in recent days .

These comments ( from a Sports Illustrated piece, of all places ) hit home for me: "If people just decide to let it burn in most areas and we do lose a couple million people it'd probably be over by the fall," says Emory University epidemiologist Zach Binney. "You'd have football. You'd also have two million dead people. And let's talk about that number. We're really bad at dealing with big numbers. That is a Super Bowl blown up by terrorists, killing every single person in the building, 24 times in six months. It's 9/11 every day for 18 months."

On the other hand, shutting down businesses is harming people too. Per the latest report, 52,444 North Dakotans have filed for unemployment since March 16.

In more normal times, our state averages about 80 new unemployment filings a day.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists North Dakota's total employment at about 395,500 as of January. About 13% of North Dakotans who had a job in January have now filed for unemployment.

That is a terrible, terrible cost, and it's not just an economical cost either. North Dakota consistently has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. From 1999 to 2016, our state saw suicide rates grow faster than any other state. A big reason for that is farming. It's a tough, lonely job, and its ups and downs can make people feel desperate ( if you need help, please get help ).

We don't yet know the social cost of people losing their jobs and businesses closing down, but it's real, and it's going to be pretty awful.

We don't have any good choices in front of us.


It would be helpful, in this instance, to understand better which path the broader public prefers.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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