I noticed today that Nate Silver crunched the numbers for the Minnesota Governor’s race and determined that Democrat Mark Dayton had a 77% chance of victory. Pretty generous. With the exception of the 1994 Arne Carlson reelection landslide, Minnesota has had 20 years worth of gubernatorial elections that have had so many dramatic twists and turns that they could have been made into movies. One actually was! Given this record of volatility and other specifics of this contest, I think Nate’s traditional calculus needs to be thrown out. This race is far from over, and all three candidates still have a viable path to victory.
If recent Minnesota gubernatorial elections are any indication, the great equalizer will be the late October televised debates. Polls moved in double digits in both directions in a matter of a week based on Minnesota gubernatorial debates. If you impress there, you’re golden. If you fail to impress, you’re ruined. And that’s true almost wherever your poll numbers may currently be. The Independence Party’s articulate 2006 candidate Peter Hutchinson was not in a position to win, but he nonetheless impressed in the debates and managed to surge at Mike Hatch’s expense, handing victory to Pawlenty. With that in mind, let’s get back to 2010.
Let’s start with the least complicated candidate, both in terms of intellect and his position in the race. That would be Republican Tom Emmer. He’s been rendered a kook by a solid majority of the electorate and, in a three-candidate race, has a ceiling of about 42% with a basement that could conceivably go as low as 30%. On the plus side for him, however, is that it’s gonna be a Republican year and more low-information voters than usual are likely to pull the lever for whoever has the (R) next to his name. I suspect this will be especially true outstate where Emmer’s hard-right social values are less likely to offend than they would in the suburbs, but whose economic values would devastate them. Emmer’s pathway to victory comes from wedging Horner vs. Dayton and picking up the slack. Right now, Horner is probably taking more votes away from Emmer than Dayton. If Emmer can reverse that and pit Dayton versus Horner, which is entirely doable in a year like this, he can simultaneously lift Horner’s numbers and plummet Dayton’s, allowing Emmer to squeak by with a 35% or better plurality.
Moving onto Dayton whose position of strength is based on three things. First, he’s held office in Minnesota going back to the 1980s and is the only candidate with statewide name recognition, especially among senior voters who tend to view him most favorably. Second, he’s exceeding expectations with the seriousness of his gubernatorial run after his disastrous Senate tenure had initially hurt his favorable ratings. Having watched early debates, he seems most in command of the issues, and when his numbers are proven to not add up, he quickly fixes them in a way his opponents won’t do. And lastly, the right and center-right are divided between Horner and Emmer, meaning Dayton doesn’t need a majority or even a strong plurality to win.
With all that said, Dayton’s support is incredibly thin, as was proven when he eked out a one-point primary win in August that he was supposed to win by double-digits. My fear is that when the spotlight’s on in the ninth inning, voters will find “the other guy” more appealing. While Emmer’s basement of support is very unlikely to sink below 30%, Dayton’s basement could conceivably drop to Kendrick Meek levels. If Horner is able to pick off soft Dayton voters, Dayton could easily go the way of 1998 Skip “28%” Humphrey at the hands of Jesse Ventura. Even in the best-case scenario, however, I strongly reject the premise of a 77% likelihood of victory for Dayton. As Dan Rather would say, his lead is “shakier than cafeteria Jell-O”. And seeing that poll earlier this week showing Jim Oberstar with a scant three-point lead in MN-08 makes Dayton’s standing seem all the more fickle given that northern Minnesota (Oberstar country) would most realistically be the place where Dayton would run up the score. If voters up there are that cool towards Oberstar, I expect they could just as easily turn on Dayton.
Now, onto Tom Horner, whose position in this race is very complicated but nowhere near dire enough to proclaim his chances of victory at zero as Nate Silver’s calculation suggests. Horner has a number of advantages and disadvantages in the hand he holds and only time will tell which direction the 2010 political environment will pull him. Working to his benefit more than anything else is the endless free advertising his campaign gets from Minnesota media, particularly the left-leaning Minneapolis Star Tribune which blows kisses to Horner on a literal daily basis and never misses a chance to piss on Dayton. In my decades of reading the Star Tribune, never have I seen them work so hard to get a candidate elected as they are for Tom Horner. Secondly, his opponents have been successfully caricatured as an extreme liberal and an extreme conservative, given Horner a huge opening to present himself as the guy in the middle when he gets his moment in the spotlight. Any other year, Horner would not be likely to catch on, but as a center-right candidate in a center-right year facing off against two uninspiring foes who are both seen as ideologues, he might be the right guy at the right time.
Horner has serious downsides though too. Charismatic Jesse Ventura was able to be the third-party hero during the 1998 economic boom on a painless platform. Tom Horner has little to none of Jesse’s charisma and, given the budgetary armageddon facing the state, has nothing to offer but pain. And while Horner is widely praised for his comprehensive budget plan, the pain is all reserved for the same groups of people who’ve been on the receiving end of the pain after eight uninterrupted years of budget crises under Pawlenty. It’s always the working class and middle class expected to take a haircut, and Horner has carefully crafted his plan to make sure the wealthy that have been spared from sacrifice in the past eight years aren’t required to make a proportional contribution this year either. Furthermore, Horner’s made a lot of money as a consultant to corporate heavies in the last decade, and if he catches on, it will be pointed out by his opponents that Horner’s tax plan effectively amounts to their payola.
And there’s one more wild card in play here. Remember the 2008 Presidential map for Minnesota? Where about 18-20 counties in Minnesota’s northwestern, southwestern, and southeastern corners showed tremendous growth for Obama even as much of state saw little improvement from Kerry’s numbers in 2004? The explanation behind that phenomenon was that Obama monopolized the Fargo and Grand Forks, ND, Sioux Falls, SD, and La Crosse, WI, media markets while John McCain monopolized all of the Minnesota media markets. In statewide races in Minnesota, voters in these Dakota and Wisconsin media markets are completely blacked out from Minnesota state politics, meaning these parts of the state tend to be unfamiliar with any of the candidates and are likely to base their votes on name ID and generic party preference. This dynamic proved to be an advantage even to Skip Humphrey in these areas in 1998, and should really benefit Dayton in 2010 given his opponents, both of whom could just as well be named Bob Smith given their limited profile to these voters. Horner in particular has little chance at getting more than 10% in these areas of the state and represent one more obstacle he’ll need to overcome, and even though they make up a small percentage of overall voters, they could easily be the difference in a close election.
With all this in mind, who’s gonna win? It’s almost impossible to predict where a Minnesota gubernatorial election will go until the final few days, but it’s hard to deny Dayton still has a long-term advantage. I see Horner gaining at Dayton’s expense in the weeks ahead…and perhaps a little bit at Emmer’s expense as well. It’s not hard to imagine Horner soaring to a load or a position of serious competitiveness, but the fact that it hasn’t happened yet makes me more skeptical than I was two months ago that it every will.
My best guess is the county map will look similar to the 2002 and 2006 gubernatorial race county maps, but with a few important caveats. Dayton will win solid majorities in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but with Horner in the mix, he won’t dominate there. I suspect Horner’s best numbers will come in the second and third-ring suburbs…places like Bloomington, Minnetonka, Blaine, and Eagan that tend to be the bellwethers in modern Minnesota elections. However, Horner is not currently poised to win by enough there to compensate for his shortcomings elsewhere. Still, my money is on a 25% showing from Horner in the state’s five most populous counties (Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota, Anoka, and Washington) based on his strength in the moderate suburbs.
Emmer will dominate in exurbia scoring solid majorities in counties like Sherburne, Wright, Carver, and Scott. Horner will probably keep Emmer from winning these areas with more than 60% or even 65% as he would in a one-on-one race with Dayton, but it will clearly be the foundation of Emmer’s strength in the statewide race. As for outstate, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a couple of the independent-friendly rural counties like Sibley, Renville, and Kanabec go for Horner, but by and large it’ll be a two-candidate race outstate with a county configuration similar to the Hatch-Pawlenty race of 2006. Emmer will pull in a narrow plurality outstate, but not enough to make up for his deficit in the core five counties of the metro area.
So there’s my take. Lower Mark Dayton’s advantage from Nate Silver’s 77% to about 47% and raise Tom Horner’s from 0% to 20% and I think you have the state of the Minnesota gubernatorial election. But again, ask me again on November 1. In Minnesota, gubernatorial politics are very seldom this simple.