The phrase used to be “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.” The origin and irony of the phrase was in the state’s reputation as a political bellwether for national presidential politics, culminating in 1936 when it supported Alf Landon over FDR for president.
Yet just the opposite seems to be true for Minnesota. It was the only state to go for Mondale in 1984 when the rest of the country boarded the Reagan landslide train. Minnesota has a reputation for third party politics–think of Floyd Olson and Jesse Ventura. It also has a progressive streak that included socialists in the 1920s and 30s, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Eugene McCarthy, and Paul Wellstone. Minnesota seems to march to its own drummer. In 2010 that exceptionalism may lead to mark Dayton winning the governorship.
Minnesota: The Fargo Factor v. Lake Wobegon?
Minnesota has the Fargo factor (think the movie) with an endearing sense of traditionalism and Nordic rugged individualism. But there is a Lake Wobegon aspect where we do think all the children are above average. The reality of Minnesota is caught somewhere between these two pop culture images.
Explanations for the state’s political idiosyncrasy are varied. Some locate it in Minnesota’s political culture, but stating that tells us nothing. It is like saying there is something in the drinking water. Others contend that the Scandianian culture is an explanation. Perhaps true, but the state is more German than Nordic and the influx of immigrants from other parts of the world should have a bigger impact on politics than it has if this were true.
I describe Minnesota as a very religious state with a tradition of religious activism that expresses a dislike of corruption and a demand for reform and clean government. It is a liberal state with conservative pulls. It has a populist tradition, a commitment to equality, and a generally positive view of an activist government. Historically is has expressed a fear of accumulation of power in business, with government historically viewed to protect people from business. Some of this may be changing, but this is the core of Minnesota politically.
Explaining Minnesota’s Independent Streak
How do we explain Minnesota’s independent streak? The state has numerous groups and regions that compete and none of them are dominant. This means that the key to winning in Minnesota is by building alliances to forge coalitions. The process of coalition building has resulted in tight party competition, occasional third party support, and high voter turnout.
In addition, Minnesota has a long tradition of non-partisan and partisan elections. This combination of two types of elections produces an electorate that is not historically as committed to party voting as one might see in other states. For example, from 1913 to 1974 the Minnesota Legislature was non-partisan. Local races remain non-partisan, as is true with judicial races. Parties have and remain powerful forces in the state, but their allure is waning. No party–DFL, GOP, or GOP–commands 51% of the population. Today I think it is DFL 35%, GOP 30%, Independence 10%, and no party at 25%. The point here is that politics is competitive and the balance of power is in mobilizing the base but more importantly, in moving the swing voters to your side. Win the swings, win the state.
Minnesota v USA in 2010
Winning over the swings is not Einstein politics. This is real simple Politics 101. But it is often forgotten by many. The DFL for years lost control of the center which is why it has not won the governor’s race since 1986 and why in 1998 it lost the House. It was not until 2004 and 2006 that it learned to recapture the center and was rewarded with control of the House again. The same problem has plagued the national Democrats. Yet in 2008 it captured the center and the result was Obama’s victory along with strong congressional majorities.
Now the national Democrats have lost the center again, with the swings moving to the GOP this year. One can debate the reasons for this loss and whether Obama had alternative options with the progressives. Yet it is clear that in 2010 the Democrats have lost the swing voters, that jobs and opposition to taxes are major policy drivers, and that the GOP has the political narrative this year–it is “Change.” Sound familar?
All this should suggest a great year for the GOP in Minnesota and that Emmer is the next governor. But not necessarily so.
Tons of polls and surveys have been done this year. Many are awful. But some truths emerge. First, large majorities of Minnesotans recognize that taxes need to go up to address services. They have seen schools, roads, and bridges decay and now about 60% or so recognize a need for tax increases. Thus unlike nationally, the anti-tax message has limited appeal beyond a GOP base plus some swings.
Second, polls suggest that Dayton is capturing the bulk of the swing voters. Emmer is not getting many swings. Horner is getting them. Emmer is running base politics. By that, from the day he accepted his party nomination he declared he would run from the right and not from the center. Dumb move! He forgot the battle is from and for the center. He ran as and let the DFL paint him as a right-winger and he is paying the price. He is still in the race because Dayton has run a lackluster campaign and his supporters are not as excited or passionate about him as the Emmer voters are for their candidate. This explains Obama’s pep rally for Dayton over the weekend. Dayton needs his base–plus women and swings–to get excited and vote for him. If they do, Dayton bucks the national trend and wins.
Emmer may still win, but it is a battle. He needs his base to vote–and they will–he needs to pickup more swings–hard to see how–and he needs Dayton’s people to stay home on election day.