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Coleman vs. Franken race so far: Lots of dust that keeps settling in the same place

Analysis by Eric Black | Wednesday, June 18, 2008
In January of ’07, this was the state of the 2008 U.S.

Sen. Norm Coleman, left, has political baggage to deal with during the campaign -- but so does Al Franken.
Nicholas Roberts/REUTERS/Eric Miller
Sen. Norm Coleman, left, has political baggage to deal with during the campaign — but so does Al Franken.

A year and a half ago — we’re talking January of ’07 — this was the state of the 2008 U.S. Senate race in Minnesota:

Norm Coleman was labeled as vulnerable, because:

• he was a first-term Republican in a purple state that seemed, based on the 2006 results, to be blue-ing up;

• he had a lot Bush and Iraq stink on him as the popularity of the president and the war sank like twin stones into deep Minnesota lakes;

• in polls, Coleman had high negatives and an approval rating near, and often below, the important 50 percent level;

• 2008 was generally looking like it might be a Dem tsunami year, especially if the Dems had a strong presidential nominee atop the ticket.

Al Franken was understood to be his likeliest DFL opponent. Although technically an undeclared candidate in January of ’07, Franken had spent more than a year openly preparing for the run. He had acquired a thick wad of IOUs from DFLers for whom he had campaigned and contributed to through his own PAC. There was excitement in DFL circles about Franken’s star power but already — yes a year and a half ago and longer than that — palpable nervousness that the many vulgar, harsh and hyperpartisan things Franken had said and written made him less than the ideal candidate to take on the vulnerable but talented Coleman. The mantra of the Franken doubters was always this:

We want this to be a referendum on Bush, the war and Coleman’s Bushiness. We don’t want a DFL nominee who might give the Repubs a way to turn the race into a referendum on the temperamental suitability of the DFL challenger.

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So DFLers were wondering whether someone politically talented, likeable and less baggage-laden might emerge to make sure that that campaign would focus on Coleman’s record. A lot of DFLers were mulling a bid, as the old scribes used to write. But the one who seemed most likely to offer himself was attorney Mike Ciresi.

A year and a half later, with the election less than five months off, one of the impressive things about Minnesota’s U.S. Senate race is how it keeps not changing, keeps stirring up dust but, after each cloud of dust settles, keeps reverting to the long-written script.

Coleman: Vulnerable for exactly the same reasons that he was identified as vulnerable in 2007.

Franken: Endorsed, high negatives, more baggage-laden than ever.

Ciresi: Having already run for the endorsement and gotten clobbered, thinking about offering himself one last time as a primary challenger.

DFLers: Palpably nervous that Franken’s baggage will cost them a golden opportunity.

Jesse Ventura: OK, a year and a half ago, he wasn’t mentioned much. He now casts a large, scraggly, shadow over the race, as he, too, mulls a bid.

So, after reading the latest tea leaves and talking to some of the smartest observers of Minnesota politics, here’s my assessment of the race:

On Ciresi
He’s been calling around for advice, and asking some political talent whether they will work for him if he enters a primary. If he’s going to do it, he has to decide very soon and campaign immediately and non-stop, and he has to finance his own campaign, which he has often said he does not want to do.

No one to whom I talked thinks he will run. It might have been a closer call if the DFL convention had declined to endorse, or even if it had taken several ballots. Rep. Betty McCollum’s public attacks on Franken were widely perceived as an effort to slow down Franken’s march to the endorsement to help Ciresi justify getting back into the race. But Franken won on the first ballot. Ciresi had pledged many times to abide by the endorsement (which seemed like a bad idea when Ciresi first made the pledge and seems even dumber now. There was never a moment when Ciresi seemed to have much of a chance of beating Franken for the endorsement.)

As an attorney, Ciresi is obviously smart, hard-working and successful. As a politician, he has demonstrated none of those qualities. In 2000, he lost an endorsement fight to state Sen. Jerry Janezich, who is not viewed as a political superstar. Then he ran in the primary and lost to Mark Dayton. In 2006, after some consideration, he decided not to enter the Senate race, and probably scored some points with party insiders for getting out of Amy Klobuchar’s path.

My politically smart sources felt that if he wanted to take one more shot in 2008, he should have started preparing for 2008 on the day he announced his non-candidacy in 2006. Instead it was Franken who appeared at every bean feed.

Sean at MNPublius wrote: “I like Mike Ciresi — I was hoping that he would provide a clear alternative to Al Franken — and he didn’t. A guy whose pitch centered on ‘I’ve never been outworked’ was outworked by a comedian.”

Ciresi suspended his campaign this year because he was running third in the endorsement fight behind Franken and professor Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, who got more bang per buck than either of his opponents.

The only recent poll of which I’m aware that matched Ciresi against Coleman showed him trailing by 10 points and running about the same as Franken.

The surprising thing, given the level and duration of DFL worries over Franken’s potty-mouth baggage, is that no one except Ciresi, Nelson-Pallmeyer and Jim Cohen offered themselves for the DFL nomination. The same names (Tim Walz, R.T. Rybak, Tarryl Clark and others) kept being mentioned and kept not jumping in. My sources were unaware of anyone other than Ciresi who is seriously thinking about a primary challenge and, as I said, none of them expect Ciresi to get in.

FYI: If you didn’t read about it last week, an anonymous “Draft Ciresi” blog was launched last week.

On Coleman
He aired his first TV ad recently. It features Coleman looking somber and puppy-eyed, reading a very simple script. Coleman emphasizes “pulling people together,” “bridging partisan divides,” “not just criticizing,” not just fighting, doing something. The ad ends with the on-screen words: “Norm Coleman: Bringing people together.”

The point, not particularly subtle, displays the two-edged sword he will wield against Franken without, in this case, mentioning his opponent by name. Coleman seeks to contrast this “bringing people together” theme (which I confidently predict you will be hearing and seeing regularly) with Franken who has called Coleman a “butt boy” and characterized Republican politicians as “shameless dicks.”

In the two latest polls — taken last week, one by Rasmussen Reports and one by SurveyUSA — Coleman leads Franken in both, but by a much wider margin (52-40 percent) in SurveyUSA than in Rasmussen (48-45). I can’t tell you which of those is closer to reality. Rob Daves, who was the longtime director of the Strib’s Minnesota Poll, is also the past president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) and now runs Daves and Associates Research, said that over recent cycles SurveyUSA has been better than Rasmussen at calling Minnesota races.

Before you get too exercised about either of those polls, you should know that neither of the June polls shows much movement from the May polls by the same organizations (Rasmussen had Coleman leading Franken by 2 percentage points in May, 3 in June; Survey USA had a gap of 10 points in May, 12 in June), so it’s unlikely that recent events (Playboy flap, Franken’s endorsement) are major factors here, at least yet.

In the Rasmusen poll, only 51 percent of Rasmussen’s sample had a favorable impression of Coleman, compared with 45 percent unfavorable. These numbers are not good, but actually show an improvement over the May Rasmussen poll, which showed Coleman’s favorable/unfavorable ratio at 49/49.

Compare this, for example, with Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, another Republican incumbent in a recently blue-trending state who is considered to be in some danger. Coleman often mentions Collins as one whose independence from a party line voting record is similar to his own, and the rankings maintained by Congressional Quarterly bear that out.

But in a May Rasmussen poll Collins’ favorable/unfavorable ratio stood at 70/29. Coleman is not a particularly popular incumbent and Team Franken undoubtedly will air some ads to drive Coleman’s negatives back up.

In the most recent Minnesota Poll (taken May 12-15), Coleman’s approval rating was 45 percent. Numbers like this will keep Coleman on the list of vulnerable incumbents.

Coleman also must stand for reelection in a presidential election year, when Democratic turnout usually rises more than Republican, and in a state where enthusiasm for the Dem’s presumptive nominee, Barack Obama, is riding high.

Rasmussen polled the presidential race at the same time as the Senate race and found Obama leading John McCain in Minnesota by 52-39 percent. (A May Star Tribune poll also had Obama up by 13 points. An early June poll by SurveyUSA had Obama up by just 5.)

If Obama continues to post double-digit leads here, talk about Minnesota being a 2008 swing state will start to blow over.

On Franken
Franken survived a nervous-making week heading into the June 7 DFL convention over his infamous 2000 Playboy piece, the denunciation of same not only by the Minnesota GOP but by most of Minnesota’s congressional Democrats, and then the follow-up revelation of a New York Magazine piece in which Franken brainstormed about rape jokes.

But Franken did get the first-ballot endorsement and the polls about which that I’ve been obsessing above suggest that he hadn’t really lost any ground to Coleman.

Some of the details of those polls should be alarming to Franken and his supporters. For example:

• If Coleman’s favorable/unfavorable ratio of 51/45 in the Rasmussen is a disaster, then Franken’s 46/50 is a catastrophe. The Star Tribune in May found that fewer people had an impression, but among those that did it was 39 percent unfavorable to 33 percent favorable. Several of my sources said that Franken’s problem is not just the potty-mouth material but also the generally supercilious, argumentative way that he comes across.

• All of the polls confirm that Minnesota has a lot more self-identified Dems than Repubs. That should be good news for Franken, but he isn’t getting a big enough share of DFLers. Rasmussen found that while Coleman was supported by 92 percent of Republicans, Franken was supported by just 73 percent of Democrats. That’s not good. In SurveyUSA, Coleman carries Repubs by 89-9; Franken carries DFLers by just 71-20. Republicans traditionally cross over less often than Democrats, but Franken’s almost 20-point gaps are bigger than normal.

• Franken should benefit from Obama’s likely strength in Minnesota, especially in bringing out new young voters for whom the magic word is “change.” But what kind of change? University of Minnesota political scientist Kathryn Pearson said that a big part of Obama’s appeal is the idea of post-partisanship, moving beyond anger and polarization of recent years. Can someone with Franken’s track record and temper ride that part of the Obama coat-tail? Why in the Rasmussen polls (and bear in mind, this is the best poll for Franken) is Obama leading McCain by 13 points while Franken trails Coleman by 3?

• Rasmussen’s analysis suggested that, given the flap over Franken’s rape and pornography jokes, Franken might find it encouraging that Coleman edged him among women voters by just 46-45 percent. Political ace Tom Hauser said the same thing on KSTP in presenting the SurveyUSA poll. But this cannot be encouraging to Franken supporters. It’s unusual and should be troubling that Franken trails, or is nearly tied, among women. That’s the side of the gender gap that is supposed to favor Dems. In a close race, Dem candidates have to carry women, not just keep it close.

If you think that the offensive material from Franken’s past can’t get any worse than the Playboy/rape joke stuff, you might believe that he has weathered the worst. There is another way to look at it. There is an almost unlimited amount of such material if we include quotes that portray Franken as foul-mouthed, angry, sarcastic, disrespectful and very, very partisan. It would not be surprising if the MNGOP rolled out new material every week until Election Day.

They have it. They will use it. Probably the worst stuff will appear in ads by party committees and “independent” groups, while the Coleman campaign will go gentler. Some of it will continue to be amplified by the news media. Team Franken should get over the instinct to blame the media for writing about it.

Franken’s No. 1 response has been that these were jokes.

On “Almanac” last Friday, he complained that Republicans were picking on “small” remarks he had made that weren’t about the issues of concern to Minnesotans. He would rather be judged by what he wrote in his “political books.” Eric Eskola pointed out that these were the books in which conservatives were described as “liars” and “big fat idiots.”

You can see Franken briefly struggle not to get angry “In satire you do hyperbole sometimes, Eric,” Franken says. “I was writing about the breakdown in civility and discourse.” (Follow the Almanac link above and then choose the Al Franken segment to judge for yourself whether this will work.)

Franken’s second response, which he has called ju-jitsu, is that the Republicans want to talk about his old jokes because they don’t want to talk about Norm Coleman’s record.

One politically savvy source said it’s fine for Franken to say that he wants the campaign to be about the issues, and both parties can get their partisans motivated on the issues. But in a close race, it’s late-deciding swing voters that decide the outcome. Those voters, in general, are relatively inattentive to politics and they tend to decide on personality. Many of them are still unaware of what Franken has said and written. None of it has been on a TV commercial. It’s simply too soon to say that Franken has weathered the impact of that material.

DFL convention delegates seemed to accept Franken’s apology for the Playboy article and the rape jokes. Many to whom I spoke over recent weeks felt that publicizing the jokes was a Rovean Republican dirty trick and DFLers should not fall for it.

Steve Schier of Carleton College said: “It’s one thing to receive the forgiveness of the DFL delegates at the endorsing convention, but the Minnesota electorate will be an entirely other question. We’ll see.”

One last question: If Coleman’s big lead, at least in the SurveyUSA poll, is about Franken’s negatives, why is the lead about the same when it’s Coleman vs. Ciresi?

On Ventura
The two recent polls agree that Ventura might start out in the mid-20s and in third place. That’s better than he started out in 1998, when he “shocked the world” by winning the governorship.

In the Rasmussen poll, the addition of Ventura caused Coleman’s lead over Franken to grow from 3 to 7 points. In the three-way race, Franken’s share of the Dem vote fell to an embarrassing 54 percent.

But in SurveyUSA’s poll, Coleman leads Franken by 12 points in a two-way race and only 10 points in a three-way. Ventura is such a wild card that it’s hard to think straight about whether he has any chance to win or whom he hurts more if he gets in.

Two Ohio State political scientists who studied Ventura’s 1998 victory found that his supporters tended to young, white, male, lower in income and education, pro-choice on abortion and fiscally conservative. There are potentially pro-Franken and pro-Coleman groups on that list, but the analysts concluded that Ventura took more votes from DFLer Skip Humphrey than from the Republican, who happened to be (drum roll) Norm Coleman. On the other hand, they concluded that if Ventura hadn’t been in the race, Coleman would have won. There must be all kinds of weird ironies and revenge plots flying around here.

Ventura also had a truly staggering unfavorable rating in the Rasmussen poll of 62 percent, and 60 percent said they did not want him to run.

His friend Dean Barkley is advising him to run, predicting he could win. Ventura, in that classy wrestler way he has, likes to taunt that “I’ve already beaten Norm Coleman once.” We’ll never figure out where the show-biz ends and the seriousness begins with that guy. Barkley says Ventura probably won’t decide until the last minute before the July 15 filing deadline.

Personally, I don’t expect Ventura to run (but that’s the merest of gut feelings). And how can someone with a staggering 62 percent unfavorable rating (that’s Ventura in the Rasmussen poll) possibly win? Only one way. Run against two guys with horrible negatives of their own and hope that you are the least-disliked of an unpopular threesome in a race where 35 percent of the vote might get you through.

How did we get here?

Eric Black writes about national and state politics, foreign affairs and other topics. He can be reached at eblack [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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