The growing public dissatisfaction with government and politics — two of three Americans have negative views about the current circumstances — suggests a look back at our two-party system, initially consisting of the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, and a look ahead to 2020.
Organizationally, our political parties have been institutionalized, evolving over many years into something like a three-legged stool: 1) the trenches where hard-core loyalists do the necessary work to shape issues, recruit candidates, oversee campaigns, identify voters, get out their own vote on election day and to raise funds to pay for it all; 2) the candidates who are serving in office or seeking election to office, generally more moderate on issues than the activists; and, 3) the largest grouping is the party on Election Day, usually a coalition of people that covers a broad cross-section geographically and philosophically. (Yes, there are conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans.)
Periodically, the end of the current two-party political system is predicted and other forms of election and governance are advanced, but not adopted. Often, it is the desire for a strong third-party challenger for president that inspires hopes for the reformers, though no third-party candidate has ever won election to our nation’s highest office.
Voting in Minnesota
In Minnesota, population 5.6 million, Republicans estimate they have about 1.1 million voters who will reliably go to the polls in support of their candidates; DFLers had a base vote of nearly 1.4 million in 2018, a higher number than in previous years. There are generally 2.5 to 3 million voters in Minnesota, tops in the nation with turnouts of about seven in 10 of the eligible voters.
I faced unusual obstacles when I was elected at age 28 as the Minnesota Republican state chair just after the 1970s Watergate scandal that resulted in the resignation of President Richard Nixon. With the DFL in solid control of the Minnesota’s political machinery, our early surveys indicated that only 10 percent of voters were solid Republicans, with well over 40 percent claiming to be independent. The DFL had over a third of the voters identifying with its side.
As a result of a broadly sponsored effort in 1975 to grow the party base, Minnesota became the only Republican organization in the nation to expand its outreach by formally adopting the Independent-Republicans of Minnesota (IRM) moniker. Our organizational actions included intentional party outreach to labor, women, minorities, younger voters and those who were unaligned with any party.
By 1978, the IRM vigorously bounced back with major statewide victories for two U.S. Senate seats, governor and in the state Legislature.
Since the 1980s we have had a competitive two-party system in Minnesota that has spread the responsibility for governing. Currently, five of eight U.S. House members from Minnesota are DFLers; three of the newcomers are in closely contested districts (two DFL and one GOP). Both U.S. senators are DFLers, as is Gov. Tim Walz. The Minnesota House is controlled by the DFL, the Senate by Republicans.
In May, the DFLers and Republicans completed the 2019 legislative session working together in a civilized manner to find compromises and trade-offs that left all sides with things accomplished and things left undone for work next year. That is not necessarily a bad thing.
2020 could see big, diverse turnout
With 16 months to go before the election, political strategists are already defining what to expect in the near future.
A lively presidential election year is shaping up. President Donald Trump is expected to win nomination for a second four-year term, and the Democratic Party already has two dozen candidates seeking the party nod, including Minnesota’s newly re-elected Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Republicans note that most U.S. presidents who seek a second term are successful, but those four who were not include Republicans George HW Bush, Herbert Hoover and William Taft; Democrat Jimmy Carter lost his re-election bid to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election.
Signs are growing that voter turnout in 2020 could reach the highest levels in the past century — with a surge of new voters producing the most diverse electorate in American history. The Democratic leaning voter-targeting firm Catalist has projected that about 156 million people could vote in 2020, an increase of 13 percent from the 139 million who cast ballots in 2016. Likewise, Public Opinion Strategies, a leading Republican polling firm, recently forecast that the 2020 contest could produce a massive turnout that will be the most widely heterogeneous in U.S. history.
With Trump’s often tumultuous presidency stirring strong emotions among supporters and opponents, strategists and academic experts are now bracing for what Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist has called “a voter turnout storm of a century.”
Potential Dem strategies
Democrats believe that chipping into Trump’s base of non-college-educated and rural white voters is one way to win back the Rust Belt states that he unexpectedly won in 2016. Others assert that Democrats could win by increasing voter turnout among young people, minorities and first-time immigrant voters.
May the elections ahead inspire rather than discourage Americans to vote and may Minnesota politics continue to practice civility in its public discourse.
Chuck Slocum is president of The Williston Group, a management consulting firm. He can be reached at Chuck@WillistonGroup.Com
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