Sunday, October 10, 2010

Eyewitness to History: The Minnesota Gubernatorial Debate at Hamline

On Saturday, October 9, Hamline University hosted a gubernatorial debate on campus in conjunction with Fox 9 news. I attended and observed the debate, giving me an opportunity to assess the candidates up close.

The Context

Coming into the debate, my sense is that Dayton had a slight lead of 3-5 points over Emmer, with Horner a distant third at around 12-15% support. The three candidates had some shared goals–avoid gaffes and motivate their bases–but they also had divergent objectives. Dayton has a lead, but his base is less motivated to vote this November. He especially needs to motivate women and the swing voters to turn out. If they do, he wins.

Emmer is behind slightly but his base–angry white males–are highly motivated to vote. Emmer also needs to win some swing voters to his side since I do not believe he can win simply by motivating his base, even if Dayton’s does not fully mobilize to vote.

Horner needed a knockout punch. He may have plateaued by capturing his base and a few swings, but he cannot rise much further unless he can convince voters that one of the other two candidates cannot win in November. Most probably, this means he needs to convince other GOPers that Emmer cannot win, thereby leading to a rush of voters from Emmer to him in fear that Dayton will win.

My analysis assumes at this point several things. First it assumes both Dayton and Emmer are holding their bases and that Dayton is doing better at capturing the swings than Emmer and Horner. In making this argument I am at odds with Larry Jacobs and what his MPR poll states. On Almanac I made these claims and Larry said his poll suggests that there are large defections from the bases of both Dayton and Horner, that swings are more in play for Horner than I think, and that in general the GOP is worried about holding on to its voters. He cites as evidence of the latter the Horner press conference with over a dozen former GOP state legislators endorsing him and the reaction that Tony Sutton had to this press conference.

With all due respect to Larry, I have already made clear why his poll is really flawed. Steve Schier has made parallel claims. I am unpersuaded that the poll accurately captures what the electorate and party alignment is in Minnesota and that means that the lead of Dayton’s is inflated in his poll. Larry’s poll is at odds with almost every other poll and it comes in conflict with recent Rasmussen polls showing both Dayton and Emmer holding 80% of their bases.

Finally, in many ways I do not think that the current GOP cares about other former legislators endorsing Horner. They represent an older GOP party replaced by a new more conservative one. Yes, they do not want to see them vote for Horner, but that is no longer their base. Sutton criticized their actions, but that is not a sign of panic.

About the only thing I agree with Larry and his poll is that it is difficult to determine who the likely voter is. Stacy Hecht well stated this problem on Almanac, with the other three of us (Schier, Jacobs, and me) concurring.

The Debate

This was the 23rd debate. In too many ways the candidates looked like they were going through the motions. Each had predictable answers to predictable questions, and each responded to one another the way you expected.

Each campaign had its groupies there and they applauded on cue. Fox 9 wanted a more contentious debate and encouraged candidates to cut off one another. They wanted theater. The candidates did not oblige, again seeming to prefer the predictable to the novel.


He seemed flat. He did not answer the questions directly and his style was weak. He did little to excite his base. He could have done more to link Emmer to Pawlenty and Palin to excite his base, but he did not. He also did not criticize the others very much and he did not do much to reach out to female voters or swings. Dayton did discuss education which is important to his base but the passion was not there.

His finest moment? Discussing why we need bullying legislation, he spoke of equality and same sex marriage. He also quoted James Madison on why government is needed here–men are not angels.” The nerd in me liked this.


He seemed on autopilot. The answer to everything was cut taxes, less government, and create more jobs. A variation of this was his constant protest that he was the only candidate who has put forth a balanced budget. No one but his base believes this. His answer to a student question about what he planned to do about the high cost of going to school? Schools needs to restructure and if we had more and better jobs then student debt would not be a problem! Hmm, tell that to anyone with huge students debts. Even a high salary does little to address the burden of high debt load.

His defining moment? He came out against new legislation to crack down on bullying motivated by anti-gay bias. He said we had too much government already and that it was up to parents teaching respect and giving teachers more authority to do what they need to do but cannot because of fear of lawsuits. Clearly Emmer was speaking to the base.


He was clear with answers and specifics. As a communications specialist he knows how to frame answers. He did a good job distinguishing himself and pointing out he was not a DFLer or GOPer.

His finest moments? Two stand out. First, he gave specifics to what he would cut to balance the budget. He noted JOBZ and ethanol subsidies as two cuts. Also, when responding to Emmer, who said no to new anti-bullying laws because it was a private issue, Horner said when others get hurt it is a public matter.

And the Winner Is?

On style and substance (that is how he looked and in answering the questions) Horner won. However, he did not knock anyone out. Emmer was second, Dayton third. Emmer managed to say what his angry base wanted to hear, Dayton did not do much to excite the passion of his supporters.

Horner’s clock is still ticking but he needs major movement soon. Dayton needs to refocus in the last few weeks and appeal to suburban females to vote for him. Pitch commercials to them. He also has started linking Emmer to Pawlenty and needs to do more of that.

Emmer has his base excited but needs to pick up some moderates. Also, everyone is expecting him to do a meltdown like Hatch did in 2006. Maybe Horner, Dayton, or a third party add will do that. Emmer also has a Pawlenty problem in another way. Pawlenty is unpopular and does nothing for him but as governor he could assist in policy or other ways. However, Pawlenty is off on his Don Quixote-esque pursuit of the presidency and seems uninterested either in Emmer or Minnesota. However, that is another story for another blog.

1 comment:

  1. If Dayton Is elected will he run away half-way through his term like he has ran away in other aspects of his life.