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Why Doug Burgum Is Staying in a Race He Can Afford to Lose

U.S.Why Doug Burgum Is Staying in a Race He Can Afford to Lose

Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota knows that many people, including powerful voices in his own party, think he should quit the Republican presidential primary, abandoning his quixotic bid so that momentum can gather behind a challenger to Donald J. Trump, and ultimately President Biden.

“This seems like they’re trying to do the job of the voters,” he said in an interview on Saturday. But Mr. Burgum is committed to staying on the ballot in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he says he regularly meets people who are eager to vote for him. “They are the ones that are going to decide how the field gets narrowed, not some other group,” he said.

Mr. Burgum, 67, was sitting in a stately conference room, somewhere in the carpeted labyrinth of a convention center in Las Vegas, which was hosting a major gathering of Jewish donors. Less than an hour earlier, in a ballroom upstairs, former Vice President Mike Pence had dropped out of the race, yielding to the reality that he was short on votes and running out of money.

Mr. Burgum’s reality is different in at least one critical respect: Though he is barely cracking 1 percent in Iowa polls, his net worth is in the hundreds of millions. He has largely self-financed his campaign, lending it more than $12 million — a further $3 million has come in from donations, according to the campaign’s most recent filing.

He can afford to be quixotic. As of the end of September, his campaign had spent $12.9 million — more than the campaigns of Nikki Haley, Chris Christie and Mr. Pence combined. About a third of that was spent on television advertising time.

He is a testament to the power of private wealth to sustain a campaign, and to elevate a largely unknown, business-minded conservative from a largely rural U.S. state to the national stage — or, at least, the edge of the stage.

“I think he does bring perspective and experience that resonate with a lot of voters,” said Miles D. White, the former chairman and chief executive of Abbott Laboratories and a longtime friend of Mr. Burgum. “I think the early process doesn’t give a lot of opportunity to demonstrate that.”

Mr. White, who gave $2 million to a super PAC backing Mr. Burgum, said Mr. Burgum’s financial resources meant he could stay in and raise awareness of himself as a potential alternative to Mr. Trump, outside the confines of the debate stage.

“His biggest challenge is being known, nationwide, and getting known, which takes a lot of time, a lot of ads, which in turn takes a lot of funding,” Mr. White said.

Mike Murphy, a longtime Republican strategist, said that most candidates, at this point, were merely helping Mr. Trump. On Monday, in an editorial in The Bulwark, he called for all of them except Ms. Haley, the former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor, to drop out.

“I like Burgum,” Mr. Murphy said in an interview. “He is in a desperate battle with the margin of error in the polling. Because the stakes with Trump are so high, he’s got to step back.”

He added, “When your argument is, ‘Let me flame out in Iowa, where I’ll do collateral damage to others,’ you don’t have an argument.”

Mr. Burgum said he first sought the governor’s seat in 2015 because he felt he could have more of an impact on North Dakota from Bismarck than he could from his perch of private enterprise. The same thing motivated him to seek the presidency — but first he had to persuade his 25-year-old son, he said, who was concerned about the attention it might bring to his family.

Finally, his son told him, “You should run, because my friends would have somebody they can vote for, instead of voting against.” Telling the story, Mr. Burgum began to cry.

Friends from the business community have also jumped in with support. The super PAC backing him, called Best of America, had taken in more than $11 million as of the end of June from about two dozen wealthy supporters, including people with links to his business world.

“Anybody who’s donated significantly so far is someone who’s known us for a long time,” Mr. Burgum said. “Because they’re like, OK, this is the real deal.”

Mr. Burgum entered the race in June on a platform that focused on his economic acumen and business record as a software executive, as well as his conservative record as governor.

“People are yearning for leadership, and leadership to them does not mean a life spent as a career politician in North Dakota,” he said. “It means someone who’s got the characteristics of integrity and honesty. Someone you can trust and someone who’s willing to take risks, someone who can take a leap and not know where they’re going to land.”

He added, of his competitors, “Just factually, I’ve created more jobs than everybody else on that stage combined, in the private sector.”

Since entering the race, Mr. Burgum has spent heavily to introduce himself to voters and to draw support.

In the early nominating states, Mr. Burgum’s business bona fides, horseback skills and distinctive eyebrows have been fixtures on television, set against the scenic backdrop of North Dakota — he said he saw his campaign in part as an opportunity to introduce his state to the rest of the country.

(As for the eyebrows, Mr. Burgum credits them to his mother’s side of the family, and acknowledges the uncanny likeness to the comedian Eugene Levy. Along with his flowing mane of hair, they get a lot of attention on the campaign trail: “If the only people voting were women over 75 or 80 years old, then we’d have a lock on it,” he said.)

Mr. Burgum’s campaign has bought $4.3 million of local and national advertising time, according to an analysis by AdImpact, a media-tracking firm. Since July, the super PAC backing him has bought nearly $13 million in ad time.

The PAC’s ads describe him as “the only conservative business leader running for president,” promising that he can bring “small-town common sense back in Washington, D.C.”

Advertising spending by the super PAC is the fifth-highest in the race, according to the AdImpact analysis, which also includes outlays for ads in the coming weeks. Never Back Down, a super PAC backing Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, has spent $35.6 million. A super PAC for Mr. Trump has spent $27.6 million; one for Ms. Haley, $22.8 million; and one for Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, $19.8 million.

Before the first debate, in late August, Mr. Burgum’s campaign offered $20 gift cards to anyone who donated a dollar to his campaign so that he could meet the threshold of 40,000 individual donors to earn a spot onstage.

The gambit worked. Then, the day of the debate, he ruptured his Achilles’ tendon in a game of pickup basketball with his aides. He showed up anyway. Two months later, he still uses a knee scooter to move around.

A major hurdle lies ahead: While Mr. Burgum’s campaign has the requisite number of donors, it has not yet met the Republican National Committee’s polling threshold for the third G.O.P. debate, next week in Miami.

He described the threshold as an arbitrary bar set by the party leadership. “It might achieve a winnowing, but it may not produce what Iowa or New Hampshire would produce, where people are actually investing time,” he said.


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