It looked all so promising only two weeks ago. Momentum and buzz suggested Tom Horner was gaining ground and he had a real chance to be governor. Polls showed strong gains, he was ahead of where Jesse Ventura was in 1998 at this time, and rumor had it he was racking in piles of money. Horner, a former public relations person, also knew how to package his statements for the media. It all looked so good.
However, I think the window of opportunity he had has closed. Why?
First, think about the polls. Two recent polls, one last Friday by Fox 9 and Rasmussen, and then Sunday by the Star Tribune, point in the same direction. In the Fox 9 poll, Horner initially looks good, polling 18%. He gets the same 18% in the Star Tribune Poll. But then Fox 9 throws in “leaners,” asking people who they are leaning toward, and Horner drops to 9%. This is not good news.
If Horner has momentum, he should have more than 18% when the leaners are added. Instead, his 18% is cut in half. When push comes to shove, voters are leaning toward Dayton or Emmer and not Horner. This is a sign of political polarization and not a good sign for a third party candidate.
More bad news. Depending on the poll read, both Dayton and Emmer are holding their bases. About 75-80% of DFLers and GOPers are supporting their candidate. Additionally, the Fox 9 poll shows Dayton grabbing far more of the moderate vote than Horner. The latter is especially troubling for Horner. Both the Fox 9 and Star Tribune polls show 27% and 28% of the state respectively not aligned with either of the two major parties. One cannot assume all of these people are moderates but many are. Horner needs to win his base Independence Party vote (I assume this to be about 8-10%), win the majority of unaligned or unaffiliated voters, and pull disaffected voters from the two major parties. However, the polls do not support that happening.
The simple answer to explain Horner’s fate is that he is no Jesse. Jesse was a politainer, a celebrity politician-entertainer (thus politainer) who could get media attention by just walking down the street. He ran during good times in MN with a $4.5 billion state surplus and 2.2% unemployment. He did not look like Skip Humphrey and Norm Coleman who looked alike and were tired and boring career politicians. Jesse was fresh and plain talking. When he won, as one of my friends once said, it was with 37% of the state giving the major parties the middle finger. Things were going well in the state so what the heck, take a chance.
Now the state is almost $6 billion in the hole and with 7% or so unemployment. Horner looks no different than Dayton and Emmer; all three are political insiders who look and sound boring. Horner gets no instant media attention by who he is. He needs to manufacture it or buy advertising.
Here is the horn(er) of the dilemma. Horner needs media attention to get his message out. He can only do that with money. He can only raise money if he lets people know he is running and what his message is, however he needs money to do that. Horner is trapped in a cycle and he may not be able to get out of it.
But not being Jesse and not having money is only part of the problem. MN’s flirtation with third party politics runs in cycles. Third party candidates do well when the state is economically doing very well or very badly and there is high disenchantment with the major parties. Think Floyd Olson (Farmer-Labor Party elected during prohibition) and Ventura during the flush times of the 90s.
These conditions exist now. But two factors mitigate against a third party now.
First, Florida 2000. The lesson many in MN and nationwide draw from Florida 2000 is that a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush. Both parties learned the message that supporting a third party candidate may help the candidate you least like. That message was again reinforced in the 2006 Franken, Coleman, Barkley senate race in MN.
Second, the 2002 plane crash of Paul Wellstone reinforced the political polarization of that begin with Florida 2000. Prior to the crash third party candidate Tim Penny was leading or tied for lead for governor. After the crash he faded fast and finished a distant third. That crash, chats that Norm Coleman was an accidental senator, the debacle of the Wellstone eulogy, and Ventura’s pouting last year as governor, all came together to end MN’s most recent third party enthusiasm.
All of these factors are suggested in recent Fox 9 Rasmussen polls showing 47% of the electorate less likely to vote for a third party candidate now than in the past.
MN has a polarized electorate. The major candidates are holding their bases. The swings are not swinging to a third party. He has little money to message, and the structural dynamics do not favor a third party candidate in a post Florida 2000 Wellstone plane crash era. Things do not look good for Horner and I think the opportunity to change minds is closing or has already closed.
As it stands, Horner may wind up pulling in no more than the core Independence Party vote, getting numbers similar to what Peter Hutchinson got in 2006.