Senate race: What if Jesse jumps in?

Jesse Ventura
CORBIS
Jesse Ventura

Cutting right to the chase: If Jesse Ventura gets into the Senate race, it’s another serious blow to the Al Franken candidacy.

As far as I can figure out, most of the group to which Ventura might appeal are groups that are otherwise potential areas of Franken strength.

Let me count the ways:

The anti-incumbency vote:
Since Norm Coleman is the incumbent, this analysis point borders on tautological and perhaps the obvious, but let’s just state it clearly and move on.

Every race involving an incumbent is, to a significant degree, a referendum on the incumbent. One way to analyze such races is to ask: Are there enough people unhappy with the incumbent to make this a possible takeaway for the other party? If the incumbent has high approval ratings and low negatives, the non-incumbent party will spend its money elsewhere. If the incumbent has an approval rating that flits around the 50 percent level (Coleman qualifies) and negative ratings above 40 percent (Coleman qualifies), a well-funded candidate (Franken qualifies) who can attract all the anti-incumbent votes (this, of course, has been a major question about Franken since before the Ventura foofaraw) has a decent chance. But if there is significant competition between two challengers for the anti-incumbent vote, the incumbent’s chances improve markedly.

The Iraq issue: A year ago it was expected that Iraq would be a dominant issue in 2008. For me, it is still important but polls suggest it’s a distant second on voters’ minds behind the economy. It still has Ventura riled up, and in the few interviews he has granted he has said his deep opposition to the war is one of the things motivating him to consider running. Most voters who say they are motivated by Iraq plan to vote for Democrats, and Franken certainly hopes to make some hay out Coleman’s staunch no-timetables, let-the-commanders-decide, stay-the-coursism. But if there are two anti-war and one pro-war candidates in the field, the danger to Coleman declines.

Abortion: Same math, shorter paragraph. Coleman opposes abortion. Franken and Ventura want to keep it legal.

Tone: In 1998 Ventura was running for governor against Norm Coleman and Skip Humphrey, two buttoned-down professional politicians who fit the stereotype. Sure, Ventura was vulgar, brash, said politically incorrect things, talked trash against his opponents, and didn’t fit anyone’s image of a high elected official. But that was part of his appeal. He was entertaining, unpredictable, a jokester. And he was the only alternative for those who were sick of voting for a suit. You could say, the “suits” got 62.4 percent of the vote compared to 37 percent for the “unsuit.”

Not this time. Because of his previous writings and utterances, Franken has to fish for votes among Minnesotans who don’t mind rude humor, don’t mind bluntness, anger, unsenatorial style, don’t mind an unconventional pre-political career path. If Ventura gets in he will, by inclination and necessity, be fishing in the same waters. Are there enough fish there?

Polls: As usual, I caution against making too much of a polls, especially polls taken five months before the election and attempting to measure the potential impact of a candidate who has neither entered the race nor campaigned. With that out of the way, there were two polls in June that tried to measure where things stood in the Coleman-Franken race, and where they might stand if Ventura was on the ballot. Both polls showed Coleman leading under either scenario and both showed Ventura running third if he entered. Both polls measured Ventura’s support in the low 20s, which is very high for a third-party candidate who has not campaigned (although a little less amazing when you consider that Ventura was fairly recently governor of Minnesota and that both Coleman and Franken have very high negative ratings in all recent polls).

Still, the two polls, taken together, did not agree about whether Ventura would draw support mostly from voters who otherwise would vote for Franken. A Rasmussen poll taken in June indicated that Coleman led Franken by 3 percentage points (48-45) in a two-way race, but his lead grew to 7 points (Coleman-39; Franken-32, Ventura-24) in a three-way. So that suggests, but only suggests, that Ventura’s entry hurts Franken.

The other poll, taken in June by SurveyUSA for KSTP-TV, showed Coleman leading by 12 points (52-40) in a two-way race and the lead shrinking to 10 points (Coleman-41; Franken-31; Ventura-23) in a three-way. There’s little good news for Franken in either poll. The first one shows him losing more support to Ventura than Coleman would. The second one shows him trailing by double-digit margins under either scenario.

Political scientist Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota has relied on those polls in interviews to say that Ventura could win the race. He compares Ventura’s support by more than 20 percent in this initial poll reading with early 1998 polls that had Ventura in single-digits.

It would be a mistake to make too much of a comparison between 1998 and 2008. Ventura was a novelty candidate early in the 1998 process but an unknown political commodity. Now he is a former governor who, in the Rasmussen poll, had a staggering, make that astonishing, 62 percent unfavorable rating.

One of the sources I consulted for this post, who asked not to be named, said “no one has a good handle on how to measure the Ventura fatigue.” Things might change if Ventura gets back in the race and reintroduces himself, but that 62 percent unfavorable rating is a starting point for the belief that Ventura fatigue is alive and large. And most of the public hasn’t even been reminded yet that Ventura publicly opined that 9/11 was an inside job.

Sack Cartoon:
None of these latter points reinforces my belief that Ventura mostly hurts Franken. But my esteemed former colleague Steve Sack of the Strib apparently agrees. In his Wednesday cartoon, Sack showed a small list of people trying to get Ventura to run. The list: “Conspiracy theorists. People with very short memories. Cartoonists. Norm Coleman.”

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Ted Snyder on 07/11/2008 - 12:19 pm.

    RE: Ventura for the Senate.

    I for one do not need to be entertained by public office holders. A sense of humor is great, but the Ventura schtick is uninteresting and debases the public arena. He had the opportunity to be a serious figure when he was governor, but chose to lapse into childishness (Apologies, children!)and did nothing to build the Independence Party which made his election possible. Jesse has had his time and does not deserved another shot at elective office.

  2. Submitted by John E Iacono on 07/12/2008 - 11:14 am.

    If he DOES file, Jesse won’t win this time.

    I have noticed over the years that journalists tend to choose flattering photos for those they like, and otherwise for those they don’t. Gives a shortcut way of seeing how they will slant the story.

    I don’t believe Jesse has the face here shown in recent photo ops. Thanks for the tip-off.

  3. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 07/12/2008 - 11:35 am.

    Eric, I think all of your points are dead on. My sense is that right leaners and libertarians were more disappointed by him than anyone else. During his radio show and campaign, he talked a good small government, self-reliance game. After he got his own pet peeves taken care of, he seemed to get controlled by the system and drifted leftward. I’m curious how popular he is on the left today.

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