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Why the DFL will lose the Minnesota House

MinnPost file photo by James Nord
The DFL do not have a good narrative to counter MNSure, Obamacare, the new Senate Office Building, and many of their other legislative acts.

The DFL are going to lose the Minnesota House. There are many reasons for this but the main one is arrogance–both a refusal to recognize a bad strategy and an unwillingness to admit mistakes.

On the face of it, the DFL has much to cheer about come November. It will sweep the constitutional offices with Dayton especially winning by a wide margin. Franken too will win, probably big, as there is no sign that the election is tightening, contrary to what reporters any my colleagues rotefully declare. The coattails of these statewide victories plus the large cash advantage that the DFL enjoy should in theory be enough to keep them in power in the House. But it won’t be enough.

Yes, there are obvious reasons why the DFL will lose. Obama is unpopular and dragging down the party. It is a mid-year election and DFL voters are less likely to vote. Both of these factors explain why big-name Democrats such as the Clintons and Michelle Obama have visited the state with the hope of rousing the base and instilling passion into DFL voters. But still that will not be enough to overcome other major problems of the DFL.

Consider first that the DFL won many seats in 2012 by close margins in Republican areas. They did so in part because if was a presidential election year and also because they benefited from Republican legislative overreach in the 2011-2012 session. This means the DFL are defending many seats that are in Republican areas, or at the least, seriously lean GOP or are at best swing. 

The second problem is the lack of a Democrat or DFL narrative. Obama had a great narrative in 2008 but since then at the national level there has been no narrative for reelection. That is why Democrats were trounced in 2010. Obama held on in 2012 because Romney was such a horrible candidate. Dayton won in 2010 because Emmer was a weak candidate, and in 2012 the DFL won less on their narrative and more on GOP failures. This year, there is still no national Democrat narrative and at the state level, the narrative too is missing. Yes Dayton and Democrats can run on their record of accomplishments and on a good state economy, but neither play well in swing districts. Moreover, the DFL do not have a good narrative to counter MNSure, Obamacare, the new Senate Office Building, and many of their other legislative acts. Yes all of these play well to the base, but not to swing voters. There is a nagging yet silent sense of DFL over-reach here, but when you put it all together, what is the narrative?  “Four more years?” “If you liked the past you will love the future?” The narrative is cloudy at best, thereby explaining in part the lethargy of the DFL voter.

schultz portrait
David Schultz

But perhaps the main reason why the DFL will lose the House has to do with arrogance. It is arrogance on several scores. Over the last few months I have given more talks across the state than I can count. Repeatedly I hear that the DFL is using a cookie-cutter approach to running a state legislative campaign. They are using the same messaging, GOTV, and tactics in all of their campaigns. Such an approach is a recipe for failure, ignoring the special issues and needs of different districts. While we may live in a era where elections are often nationalized, Tip O’Neill is still correct that all politics is local. 

Almost 30 years ago I moved to Minnesota and saw a party still fixated on the past. I saw a DFL bureaucratic and dominated by a small core of activists who in many ways still dominate the state and think the way you win is the way they used to win. Say what you might about the GOP, but the Tea Party movement has brought a new crop of activists into the Republican Party, willing at times to challenge it with new ideology and tactics. 

But what I have heard about and see this year is that the DFL leadership has refused to acknowledge that their strategy and campaign projections are flawed. It is a urban-based approach that might work well in cities with lots of Democrats, but it is still not well suited for many suburbs and especially rural Minnesota. I have heard several DFLers overconfidently say there are only about eight swing races in the state, self-assured that there are some seats they really do not need to defend. Too many individuals have told me that they have been refused support or volunteers because the DFL thinks their race is unwinnable. Or that the DFL has not supported a race because of petty jealousies. 

There is a lot of ego on the line here. Many in the DFL leadership have a stake in being considered wise gurus–they have decided who can win or lose and how–and they do not want to prove themselves wrong less they lose their stature within the party. This insularity and making it all about them is a sure downfall for the DFL this November.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and the author of “Election Law and Democratic Theory” (Ashgate, 2014) and “American Politics in the Age of Ignorance” (Macmillan, 2013). He blogs at Schultz’s Take

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Comments (33)

  1. Submitted by Beth-Ann Bloom on 10/22/2014 - 08:50 am.

    New Crystal Ball

    Mr Schultz may want to order a new crystal ball. These were his final predictions in 2012:

    Final Predictions
    Presidency: Back in March I said Obama would win with 272 electoral votes. He still wins but with 290-305 electoral votes. He also will get around 50.5% of the popular vote.
    US Senate: Democrats retain control with 51 seats.
    US House: Republicans retain control but with a slightly narrower margin.
    Minnesota Congressional Delegation: No change. Nolan and Cravaack is too close to call but a slight nod to the incumbent.
    Minnesota House: DFL or GOP control by one seat for either and a real chance of 67-67.
    Minnesota Senate: Republicans retain close control.
    Marriage and Elections Amendments: Both pass.

    There is no reason to believe he will be any more accurate this year

    • Submitted by Colin Brownlow on 10/22/2014 - 09:36 am.

      Possibly not, but

      Schultz may not be anymore accurate in his predictions than in the past. On this one I do hope his prediction is wrong. That doesn’t take away from his main point. If you want undecided and non-affiliated voters to vote for you, you need to give them clear, well-articulated, positive and coherent reasons to do so. You need to do more than tell them how terrible the republicans are. Like it or not, Republican’s do a much better job packaging their message. I don’t like what they are saying – but they’ve done a good job saying it.

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/22/2014 - 09:59 am.

      Ouch

      I sure would not be calling anyone arrogant if my last round of predictions had been such an epic fail. Look in the mirror if you want to see real arrogance, Mr. Schultz.

  2. Submitted by Bill McKinney on 10/22/2014 - 09:28 am.

    I thought we sent the “pundits” away for good in 2012

    Nicely done Beth-Ann. I don’t see any point in listening to “predictions” based on qualitative observations by an “expert”. Nate Silver and the rest of the dataheads demonstrated beyond any doubt in 2012 that “pundits” are good for soundbites and essentially useless for predicting outcomes. Bring data and facts please!

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/22/2014 - 10:09 am.

    Political Science

    You can call it “science”, but in the end it’s just opinion, much like economics. I don’t think political scientist have a much better track record predicting election outcomes than anyone else. Let’s go back and see if Mr. Schultz predicted the Ventura win? The GOP is pitching it’s magical thinking again as if lower taxes and audits will materialize needed revenue, and Schultz thinks the DFL is using cookie-cutter campaigns?

  4. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 10/22/2014 - 10:12 am.

    Let’s all send Prof. Schulz an e-mail on Nov. 5th

    Message #1: You were right. Good call.

    Message #2: My son/daughter is one of your students at Hamline. I would like my money back.

    • Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 11/06/2014 - 06:53 am.

      Dear Prof. Schulz….

      You were right. Good call.

      You know, with the proper seasoning, crow doesn’t taste so bad.

  5. Submitted by Steve Carlson on 10/22/2014 - 10:12 am.

    Better explanation, a bit less sensationalism

    The normal ebb and flow of party politics and shifting demographics. The Democrats were holding a lot of marginal seats they probably reasonably couldn’t be expected to hold outside of presidential years. The Republicans typically do better in midterm elections.

    Kind of a boring explanation, but you know. More accurate.

    There are other factors at work, like the sharpening urban/rural divide–the Range and rural Minnesota are no longer DFL strongholds and the sooner they realize it the better. But those are longer-term trends and it’s gonna take a while for the DFL to realize the F and the L aren’t strong factors any more.

  6. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 10/22/2014 - 10:22 am.

    sweeping generalizations…

    based on a few conversations. Talk about cookie cutter approaches, wow. To me, based on what I see in the media and in campaign ads, not based on conversations with insiders, I’d say the Republicans are complete masters of the political cookie cutter: Obamacare bad, Obama bad, taxes bad, guns good, gays bad, They share the arrogance that Schultz mentions but without the success to back it up.

  7. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 10/22/2014 - 10:46 am.

    I recognize that bold headlines and lead statements are meant to be provocative and grab readers, but I expect a little more intellectual honesty from an academic. This sort of no-uncertainty-it-will-be-this-way prognostication is something I expect from the various DFL/GOP talking heads on cable news, not from someone doing serious analysis (and yes, an acknowledgement of whiffing on the 2 amendments, the senate, and Cravaack might be in order).

    Getting into the reasons for this prediction, I’m even more amused– I was expecting a careful analysis of a few key districts that will decide control (since many districts are likely safe holds for either party). Perhaps some conversations with people in those districts, talking about how candidate X was just not connecting, was making various gaffes, etc. But no– we get vague talk about “narrative” and “arrogance.”

    Everyone gets their own opinion, but to predict the outcome of 134 local races with no apparent uncertainty based on narrative and arrogance seems…arrogant.

  8. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 10/22/2014 - 12:05 pm.

    Message

    If the Republicans are running on “MNSure, Obamacare, the new Senate Office Building, and many of their other legislative acts,” then they need to drink stronger coffee. MNSure and Obamacare have given many thousands of people access to healthcare and they’re not going to be too inclined to elect people who will take that away from them.

    The Senate office building is only a simmering issue in the minds of GOPers who have nothing else to latch onto. I doubt it’s going to sway independents in significant numbers.

    And “other legislative acts” is so vague that it’s hard to even pin a tail on that donkey. What exactly does the professor mean by that? If he can’t articulate the talking points in an article he’s spent hours planning and writing, how is that going to get translated to swing voters?

    “Democrats did something in the legislature that you should be angry about. We don’t know what it is, but please be angry anyway. Vote for us instead! Vote no for Republicans! Oh wait, I meant we voted no and you should too! Crap, that didn’t work either. We’re the party of no, so vote yes for no!”

  9. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 10/22/2014 - 12:15 pm.

    Arrogance

    So the Democratic party is arrogant for…what reason exactly? I didn’t catch that bit in this article, so if someone can point it out to me I would really appreciate it.

    What I see when I look at the legislature and governor’s accomplishment is an economy that’s doing well in the state, in the region compared to our neighbors, and nationally too. That isn’t to say there is not room for improvement, but it’s pretty obvious we’re doing a lot better than a lot of other states.

    The professor correctly points out that Obama and Franken ran against weak opponents, while at the same time failing to acknowledge that it was the Republican people who brought these people forward. Emmer and Romney were the best and the brightest that could make it through the GOP primary mill, appease Tea party members, and make it to the end to be nominated. It’s not like the Democrats thrust the candidates upon the Republicans and said “here, please run these guys because I know I can beat them.” That was their mistake to own in its entirety.

    You want to win more races? Put out better candidates! Better candidates means people who are more centrist, NOT more extreme. Johnson’s in the process of losing because he’s a nut who wants to turn us into a cold Kansas. I forget who Franken is running against, which doesn’t bode well for that guy either.

    Dayton and Franken are doing a good job, the economy is humming along, and people are likely to cue into that rather some rabble rouser who says we’re doing it all wrong despite evidence to the contrary. The GOP needs to come up with platforms and candidates that are more centrist if they want to have a serious go of it here in Minnesota.

  10. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/22/2014 - 12:46 pm.

    Cookie cutting

    “I hear that the DFL is using a cookie-cutter approach to running a state legislative campaign. They are using the same messaging, GOTV, and tactics in all of their campaigns. Such an approach is a recipe for failure, ignoring the special issues and needs of different districts.”

    From where I sit in a knock on wood, fairly safe DFL district, a statewide DFL legislative campaign doesn’t exist at all. There is no DFL money. There is no DFL message support. There is little participation of popular Democratic elected officials apart from the occasional flyby.. There are occasional promises, none of them kept. There really is no DFL nothing. And given the nature of the district, I don’t think that’s a wrong choice, but only time and November 4th will truly tell.

    The good professor tells us that the DFL leadership has refused to admit that the strategy and campaign projections are flawed. Speaking as one, in a very minor sort of way, DFL leader, I can freely admit that our campaign strategy is flawed, and that while our projections may be flawed as well, they are proving far too accurate.

    For me, the problem now as always comes down to messaging. And messaging always seems to be a problem with the DFL. The Republican Party has no visible message and no one seems to care or even notice. Currently what we have in place of a message, is a remarkable record of achievement, one on which our governor is successfully running. Why isn’t that record translating into an easy win on the legislative level, the level at which those successes were actually achieved? I have some answers, not all of them surely, but I am very interested in what others have to say.

  11. Submitted by Lora Jones on 10/22/2014 - 03:10 pm.

    The DFL doesn’t have a narrative?

    What does he think the GOP’s is? If it’s anything beyond “Dem Bad, Me Good,” I have yet to see or hear it.

    Almost equally confusing, is that Schultz, after acknowledging what we all already know, that Democratic turnout during midterms is a primary cause of Democratic midterm losses, criticizes “cookie cutter” GOTV efforts. What, exactly, does he think led to the defeat of the Amendments? GOTV was a lot of it.

    And beyond that, I wonder what exactly Schultz and co. see when they look at the districts they think so red leaning that they’re bound to flip. I looked at the stats and summaries published here a few weeks ago and saw a lot of pretty evenly divided, and even democratic leaning districts listed as being ripe for flipping. Did everyone forget that a good number of those districts had just flipped to the GOP by an even smaller number of votes in 2010? Does he really think that GOP performance since then has been so stellar, and the DFL’s so abysmal, that we’re going to experience whiplash? What is it he thinks GOTV efforts are hoping to accomplish if not the exact opposite of that?.

    It seems that the pundit class both nationally and locally is either so determined to create a Republican Wave narrative that they ignore any evidence that may contradict it (see, Politico, which recently headlined positive and improving democratic poll numbers with “Dems in Disarray!”) or just too lazy to do any thinking or analysis, and so take 2010 history as predictive of 2014 results.

  12. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 10/22/2014 - 03:43 pm.

    I Found A List!

    This might get me in some trouble on here; today’s Strib lte’s featured a nice, succinct, and easy to understand list of what the state DFL could tout as accomplishments.

    • A balanced budget and all money borrowed from the education fund repaid.

    • $150 million transferred to the state budget reserve, increasing the reserve for the first time in 13 years and bringing it to its highest level in state history ($811 million).

    • Fully funded all-day kindergarten.

    • $54 million in new education funding, increasing resources for schools statewide and providing preschool scholarships for low-income families.

    • A two-year freeze on tuition in state colleges and universities.

    • An increase in the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour in 2014 and to $9.50 an hour by 2016.

    • Increased time off for mothers to care for newborns.

    • A 5 percent pay increase for long-term-care providers.

    • A decrease in property taxes for homeowners and renters of modest income.

    • Freedom to marry for all Minnesotans.

    • Gun laws amended to deny firearms to people under a domestic-violence restraining order.

    • New tools against bullying.

    • Legalized medical marijuana for chronically or terminally ill patients.

    • $20 million to expand access to high-speed Internet in underserved areas of the state.

    Perhaps the state DFL could hire the letter writer for their communications dept.?

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 10/22/2014 - 10:25 pm.

      Hopefully we can afford to keep it up, and more!

      Now that all day kindergarten is permanent (there wasn’t money provided to build the classrooms and hire the buses) that adds to all future budgets. I’m sure that the State will keep paying for the tuition increases that the state colleges and universities ask for every year calling it a “freeze” which costs hundreds of millions more. Perhaps the State can keep providing millions each year to cities in the name of “property tax relief” even though many just spent the money figuring that it was one-time money. 5% to the long-term-care providers is now 5% more each year. Not included are the new MNSure costs that will increase, especially when the Feds start reducing their share of the payments. The last two budgets have increased State spending by over 8% per biennium and we still aren’t spending nearly enough. As an earlier poster mentioned, now that thousands more people are getting money from the State government, it is even more unlikely that those people will vote against the people that gave them the money. That is the idea, and it works again and again. Until the money runs out.

    • Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 10/23/2014 - 05:15 am.

      Now…

      to get the $$$ for all of this. Where will that come from?

      • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 10/23/2014 - 07:57 am.

        Funds

        Well, if you’re a Republican you’ll simply mortgage your state’s future and borrow money from schools with no plan to pay it back. Or ignore a couple of wars, take them off the books, and pretend that they’ll somehow pay for themselves.

  13. Submitted by Thomas Beckfeld on 10/22/2014 - 03:51 pm.

    The truth

    While I have no idea if the DFL will hold the house (and I hope it does) I can say that there is a lot of truth here. In 2006 the DFl put paid campaigners in every congressional district and and not only did districts like the 6th have Democrats get elected but some of these paid staff turned into great campaigners (Richard Carlbom and Joel Ellickson are 2 examples).

    We liked Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy shouldn’t Mn have an 82 county strategy?

  14. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 10/22/2014 - 05:20 pm.

    The part that makes me wonder

    How is anyone refused volunteers? Volunteers can’t be told where to go. They can be asked, but they can’t be told. It is the case that volunteers turn out more in some places than others, and they likely prefer to work near to home, but that’s not the same as refusing to provide them. It is the case that the DFL won lots of close races in 2012, and the Republicans won lots of close ones in 2010. Our districts aren’t gerrymandered, so lots of close districts is just a fact of life, at least until the next redistricting.

    Personally, I’m never averse to asking if we’re being arrogant, what assumptions did we make, what assumptions aren’t we conscious of, and is there a better strategy. But sometimes there aren’t better options.

  15. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 10/22/2014 - 07:21 pm.

    Let’s hope….

    Mr. Schultz ic correct. It would be nice if Dayton”s power could be at least offset a little. Power divided is power checked. The DFL’ers who blindly follow Dayton and abide by everything he says and does need a wake up call to the fact that there are others in the state that think differently than them.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/23/2014 - 07:17 am.

      Power Unchecked?

      Mr. Yankovic, don’t you just hate the way GOP power is “unchecked” in the states of Wisconsin and Michigan? I’ll bet that drives you nuts too.

      Badger state voters should elect Mary Burke to check the power of the GOP legislature! Right Mr. Yankovic?

      • Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 10/23/2014 - 05:13 pm.

        Frank,

        I could care less about what goes on in Wisconsin and Michigan.What goes on there has no effect on me. What I do care about is every time this governor and his merry men in the DFL decide to redefine “fairness” it is more money out of my pocket with nothing in return.
        You folks who preach the virtue of “tolerance” certainly don’t practice it yourselves when someone has a differing opinion.

        • Submitted by jason myron on 10/24/2014 - 03:04 pm.

          What’s intolerant

          about pointing out the hypocrisy of your position? Let’s cut to the chase, Pavel. You have no issue with power, as long as your side wields it. If the GOP wins, it’s a mandate, but if the Dems win, it’s “power unchecked.”

    • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/24/2014 - 08:35 am.

      Power

      In dealing with the legislature, even a legislature controlled by the governor’s own party, the governor’s power comes from the leverage the threat to veto gives him. The governor, powerful though he may be, must always work within the scope of what the legislature chooses to do. He cannot sign bills which, for whatever reason, don’t reach his desk. Now it is possible, in theory at least, for the governor to have a great deal of influence over legislators or the legislative majority. The veto is helpful in that. But at best, that’s an awkward tool which isn’t really suited in dealing with legislative matters. Pretty much, the majorities are on their own. They decide what the priorities are, they draft the legislation that implements those priorities, always with an eye to what the governor is willing to accept, but it is always the legislature that does the bulk of the work. I have heard, indeed from Professor Schulz and other, that the electorate is crediting the governor, rather than the legislature, for the DFL record of achievement over the last two years, a record of achievement that would not have happened had the Republicans controlled one house of the legislature. The inability to communicate the crucial role played by the DFL legislative majority, if it has been a failure, has been one of the main problems of DFL messaging.

  16. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/23/2014 - 10:56 am.

    Checks and balances

    The wonder of a checks and balances system is something we all pay an extraordinary amount of lip service to, but less frequently commented upon on the specific problems such a system of government raises. We have constructed ourselves, for reasons that I am certain were persuasive to 18th century minds, a government, the parts of which, don’t share interests, and which often enough, have interests which are conflicting and even contradictory, and which in addition is without a mechanism for resolving them. The result is what we have seen; government on a state level which is largely ineffective, and only responsive to crises such as bridge collapses.

    Once, in a great while, one party gets control of state government and effective governance actually happens. Budgets get balanced, schools get more money, tax burdens are reallocated just a bit more equitably, all those woefully overdue things representing a 25 year backlog of things that needed to be done., listed in Mr. Worcester’s posting begin to happen.But curiously, in terms of the next election, none of those things seem to matter. Despite what has been a wonderful record of achievement, it turns out the DFL has arrogantly committed a sin; it hasn’t crafted a message for itself suitable for publication on a bumper sticker. Obsessed with substance, the DFL has been inattentive to form, leaving an opening for a party promises to do nothing that would make the lives of Minnesotans better, a promise that they have reliably kept for decades. And one that whatever it’s other problems, fits quite nicely on those bumper stickers.

  17. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/05/2014 - 09:01 am.

    The aftermath

    I would say it’s now time to revisit and possibly expand on this article. I was reluctant to comment on this piece too extensively, because in a small way, I am a bit of a DFL insider, with a ring side seat to some of the dynamics the good professor describes. My own thought is that Mr. Schulz’s descriptions were just a bit harsh; it isn’t a question of arrogance so much, as difficulty is finding solutions to very difficult political problems. The DFL had to do certain things, because that’s what we ran on, and that’s what we are about. Those things are going to alienate certain voters, but hey, the purpose of politics is to govern, not to win elections. To some extent we were aware that by implementing a DFL agenda, we were putting our reelection chances at risk, and I was fine with that. After a very solid and active session, maybe the state could use a rest.

  18. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 11/06/2014 - 11:16 am.

    Go Ahead Dr. Schultz

    Don’t be afraid to say the obvious: “I told you so”. 🙂

    I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about why our state which usually leads the nation in turnout barely cracked the 50% level. That’s embarrassing to this average citizen. Truly embarrassing.

  19. Submitted by David Schultz on 11/08/2014 - 08:58 am.

    Voter turnout

    Mike:
    Take a look at my November 7, Minnpost piece where I discuss some of the turnout issue. As a Minnesotan, I share your embarrassment in terms of the poor turnout. I expect us to do better than that.

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