Wednesday, September 29, 2010

On the Horn(er) of a Dilemma: The Fading Prospects of a Third Party Governor in Minnesota

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.


  1. Professor, I think you've nailed this one. The Tim Penny analogy is apt, though I give Minnesotans credit for figuring out before the 2000 election that a vote for Penny was a vote against their viable favorite. After a quick Penny fling, they went home with the one what brung 'em. I'm also buying your estimate of his matching Hutchinson numbers.

    Please let me add two reasons Horner will fade. First, Horner is the quintessential cognitive dissonance candidate. The words do not match the man. He wants us to think of him as something new, different, independent, an out-of-the-box thinker. But his history, professional background and demeanor are overwhelmingly Establishment Republican. The more exposure a voter has to Horner, the more cognitive dissonance this mismatch produces, the more likely it is that the voter runs the other way.

    Second, the raised middle finger crowd to which you refer, the folks who put Jesse in office, do have a candidate this year. It's just not Independence candidate Horner. It's Tom Emmer. I have no objective demographics to back this up, but it's my observation that Emmer is bringing disaffected voters, at least some of whom are not usually politically active, into the process. Despite party labels, I believe this years gubernatorial candidates are best described as Dayton the Democrat, Horner the Republican and Emmer the Tea Party candidate.

  2. Fortunately I believe that you are misinterpreting the results of the polls.
    American Pollsters design their polls to determine which of the two parties people are leaning towards, you either lean left or right, you can’t lean towards the middle. So when you place a third party candidate trying to run in the middle you can’t lean towards them in the algorithm the pollster use. So “leaners” will always sway away from someone in the middle ground.
    The Rasmussen poll is further tainted by the fact that the automated poll only called land lines and attempted to minimize the number of undecided voters; which is why instead of the upper-teens to lower twenties that most polls are saying are undecided was like two percent. Again the algorithm used is not designed for a three party race. Your answers on questions like stance on abortion or gay-marriage determine who you are voting for not which of the three candidates you selected.
    There are some issues with holding political base. If we assume that only 30% of people affiliate with Republican and 33% of people affiliate with Democrat normally there base is fairly well locked up, considering that 20% of Republicans and 15% of Democrats are supporting Horner that is 6% and 5% of the overall vote being moved towards Horner that would normally be secure.
    But there are other issues with holding the political base, in the case of Emmer he is losing support from his base, down a dozen or so percentage points and Dayton is doing better today than after the primary again that number is down from a week ago.
    Horner is also doing well in the over 55 vote with over 22% in several polls. And of course the under 24 vote is anyone’s guess at this time(again usually a strong Democratic vote, but they are considered likely voters by most polls so not included in polls) and they went strongly for Jesse.
    I believe the real change will start will start in the next week when both parties start running anti-horner ads on TV. They have too because they have to minimize their base defection and when the Ads paint Horner in the middle he will gain ground.

  3. Rasmussen is only tainted to people who don't like the news they bring. There's a reason that Nate Silver ranks Rasmussen well ahead of both the Humphrey Institute and Strib polls.

  4. Dipper is correct that Emmer is the protest candidate. Jeff and David hit at good issues about the pools. I think the MPR poll (Humphrey Institute) is really flawed and this most recent Rasmussen had some flaws in it, although in general it is not bad. I thought the best recent poll was the channel 5 one from a couple of weeks ago.

  5. Correction: I meant to say polls,not pools! Sorry.

  6. The last 2 MPR/HHH polls are both flawed in their methodology, but there's still something to be learned from them. (Just not the lesson that HHH's Authority on All Politics Larry Jacobs might want you to take)

    When given an unrealistic and unsupported partisan advantage, Emmer's best performance is still only a statistical tie with Dayton. When given nearly the same partisan advantage (also overstated, though I would suggest it's not as blatantly unrealistic as in the first poll) Dayton gets a lead outside the margin of error. That tells me that Emmer needs to have a significant turnout advantage of Republicans, and to hold them with more than 85% fidelity to win.

    If the numbers stay poor for Emmer, I have to wonder if that might help hold Horner's numbers a little higher as some Republicans defect in protest.

  7. Josh:

    Great observations. If Emmer has peaked with his base and there is a perception that he cannot win there could be a rush to Horner. That needs to happen soon.

  8. But a very large portion of Emmer's base is anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage and the worst they'll do is stay home. I don't see any way they go to Horner. Horner can only win if he pulls in whatever Carlson Republicans still exist, maybe those with libertarian leanings and cuts into Dayton's numbers substantially. A mass rush from Emmer's current crop of voters seems highly unlikely.

  9. The only question really remaining is whether it will be Dayton, or Emmer, the insurrectionist: