Why Doug Burgum Could Surprise In The 2024 Republican Primary

It’s high season for glossy campaign videos and American flag bunting. In the last 16 hours, three Republicans have announced they’re running for president — an unfortunate syzygy for candidates whose meticulously crafted messages are now in danger of getting drowned out. And with his virtually nonexistent national profile, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum likely has the most to lose from sharing the news cycle with former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. On the other hand, he may not care too much: Thanks to his deep pockets (and the other candidates’ lackluster prospects), Burgum may have the most upside of the three.

You could be forgiven for never having heard of Burgum before. He’s governor of the nation’s fourth-smallest state by population, and until a couple weeks ago, virtually no one outside of North Dakota was talking about him as a potential future president. (Those reading in-state media, though, were hip to it as early as March.) The first polls to include him as an option in the primary were released on May 24 (he received 1 percent in one and 0 percent in the other), and Morning Consult’s latest poll found that only 23 percent of potential Republican primary voters knew enough about him to form an opinion of him.

Who is Doug Burgum the North Dakota governor running for president? | FiveThirtyEight

So why does Burgum think he has a shot at the White House? Maybe because he’s gone from anonymous dark horse to Republican primary winner once before. In 2016, everyone assumed that then-North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem would be the state’s next governor. He led Burgum 59 percent to 10 percent in a February poll of the GOP primary, and he received the official endorsement of the North Dakota Republican Party at the party convention in April. But in the June primary, Burgum defeated Stenehjem 59 percent to 39 percent.

How did he pull it off? A big part of it was money. Burgum is a software executive — and a very successful one. He was an early investor in Great Plains Software, which he sold to Microsoft in 2001 for $1.1 billion. With the help of one William Gates of Seattle, Washington, he outraised Stenehjem at least $966,000 to $752,000 in that 2016 primary. And we say “at least” because that number doesn’t include whatever Burgum self-funded — at the time, North Dakota law didn’t require candidates to disclose contributions they made to their own campaign.

Burgum is reportedly going to use the same playbook in 2024: A source told ABC News that he will self-fund his presidential campaign. Considering that his net worth as of last year was reportedly more than $1 billion, he could probably pump several million dollars into the race without breaking a sweat. And that would immediately make him one of the primary’s top fundraisers. It was a couple months ago, but as of March 31, only two Republicans had raised more than $12 million or had at least that much money in the bank.

Only a few presidential candidates are flush with cash

Fundraising total receipts and cash on hand for Republican presidential candidates as of March 31, 2023

Candidate Total Receipts Cash on Hand
Donald Trump $18,272,903 $13,931,948
Vivek Ramaswamy 11,418,449 9,367,288
Nikki Haley 5,125,431 4,069,549
Perry Johnson 3,763,396 2,036,476
Tim Scott 1,646,202 21,912,915

Asa Hutchinson and Ron DeSantis have not yet reported raising any money to the FEC.

Source: Federal Election Commission

According to political science research, the connection between spending money and winning elections isn’t automatic — just ask former New York City mayor and 2020 presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg. But one of the contexts in which campaign cash can be very helpful is early on in a primary when the candidate is not very well known. This, of course, is exactly Burgum’s situation. His lack of name recognition is actually an asset when paired with his fat wallet; it will allow him to define himself however he wants for a national audience. As governor, Burgum has been a bit hard to pin down ideologically, and it will be interesting to see how he defines himself once he enters the GOP race. Will we get the wonky, temperate Burgum who geeks out over energy policy and once called an anti-LGBTQ+ resolution “hurtful and divisive”? Or the rock-ribbed conservative Burgum who signed multiple pieces of anti-transgender legislation and one of the strictest abortion bans in the country?

Now, let’s not get carried away: Burgum is very unlikely to win the actual nomination. (As you may have heard, there’s this guy named Donald Trump who has a dominant lead in both polls and endorsements, both of which have historically been pretty predictive.) But Burgum could spend enough to have a meaningful impact on the race. 

Let’s say Burgum really commits to the bit and kicks in $50 million of his own money before the end of the year. The list of presidential candidates who have raised the equivalent of $50 million in 2023 dollars by that point in the cycle is full of notable names. If they didn’t win the nomination, most of them were at least an important part of the narrative of the election cycle in which they ran.

Free-spending candidates do well in presidential primaries

Democratic and Republican candidates who have raised at least $50 million (in 2023 dollars) in incumbent-less presidential primaries before Jan. 1 of election years since 2000 and where they eventually finished in the primary, based on delegates won

Candidate Party Year Total Receipts Self-Funded Finish
Tom Steyer D 2020 $244.8m $240.3m T-8th
Michael Bloomberg D 2020 237.7 237.5 4th
Hillary Clinton D 2008 173.1 0.0 2nd
Barack Obama D 2008 151.9 0.0 1st
Hillary Clinton D 2016 147.9 0.5 1st
Mitt Romney R 2008 131.8 0.1 3rd
Steve Forbes R 2000 129.8 120.3 4th
Bernie Sanders D 2020 129.0 0.0 2nd
George W. Bush R 2000 125.0 0.0 1st
Elizabeth Warren D 2020 97.3 0.0 3rd
Bernie Sanders D 2016 96.0 0.0 2nd
Rudy Giuliani R 2008 90.2 0.0 T-8th
Mitt Romney R 2012 77.0 0.0 1st
Joe Biden D 2020 72.4 0.0 1st
Ben Carson R 2016 69.2 0.0 5th
Howard Dean D 2004 68.2 0.0 3rd
John Edwards D 2008 64.8 0.0 3rd
John McCain R 2008 61.6 0.0 1st
Ted Cruz R 2016 60.3 0.0 2nd
Al Gore D 2000 52.7 0.0 1st
Marco Rubio R 2016 50.6 0.0 3rd
Bill Bradley D 2000 50.6 0.0 2nd

Dollar figures are adjusted for inflation. Steyer and Giuliani tied for 8th place with zero delegates each.

Sources: Federal Election Commission, Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

The 2024 Republican primary already has a clear front-runner in Trump and a clear main alternative in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. But after that, the field is wide open; according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average, the third-place candidate nationally right now is former Vice President Mike Pence with only 5 percent support. Burgum would need his money to give him only about a 5-percentage-point boost to become the main alternative to the main alternative. And given that DeSantis has faced questions about his awkwardness and political skills — coinciding with his national polling average falling from 30 percent on March 21 to 21 percent today — that could be a valuable place to be. 

That, to be clear, is Burgum’s best-case scenario. He may not spend $50 million — and even if he does, he may not surpass DeSantis, or even Pence. But his first barrage of spending — whether it comes immediately or in several months — will be worth watching closely. In politics, candidates who spend a ton of money eventually encounter diminishing returns — in other words, Burgum’s first $20 million spent will get him further than dollars 100-120 million. Once we see how much he is willing to spend and where he ends up once he has spent the first wave of it, we’ll know a lot more about whether Burgum is a candidate to watch.

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