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Secret of DFL gubernatorial election losses revealed

The DFL has lost five straight gubernatorial elections and six of the last eight dating to the Minnesota Massacre of 1978.

The DFL has lost five straight gubernatorial elections and six of the last eight dating to the “Minnesota Massacre” of 1978. (If you don’t recall, the Repubs picked up both U.S. Senate seats and the governorship in that one election.)

This confuses the national observer class, which thinks Minnesota is a solid blue state, based mostly on the fact that Minnesota holds the current longest streak of any state of going blue in presidential election (the last time Minnesota went red in the Electoral College was the Nixon landslide of 1972).

Why is this? I’ve asked a number of politically insightful Minnesotans, and the answer tends to be a mélange of roughly these four analysis points:

  1. Unelectable DFL nominees. (Sometimes this one is blamed on the workings of the endorsement system, although one of the losing DFL nominees, Skip Humphrey, lost the endorsement and then won the primary, largely — as I recall it — on the argument that the Humphrey name made him the electable one. The trouble with electability arguments is that you find out afterwards who was the electable one. Humphrey was the only DFL nominee ever to finish third. In 2006, Mike Hatch was nominated, at least in part, because DFLers believed he knew how to win).
  2. IP influence. (Many DFLers believe that the Independence Party ticket takes more votes from Dems than from Repubs and that the DFL would have won all or most of the last three guv elections without the IP candidate on the ballot, although the evidence for this is not bulletproof. Personally, I am most convinced that this was true in 2006.)
  3. Weird flukes. (Rudy Perpich loses to Arne Carlson in 1990 after Carlson is added to the ticket in the final weeks after the probably-less-electable Jon Grunseth resigns the nomination. The Wellstone plane crash and the public reaction to the memorial service scrambled the 2002 election in the final days. Hatch woulda won if he had kept his temper under wraps for one more week. And, if you go all the way back to 1978, Rudy Perpich’s connection to the Wendell Anderson self-appointment imbroglio may have handed that whole year to the Repubs.)
  4. Conservative tide. Since the Carter-Reagan contest in 1980, the Republican less-government argument has been ascendant more often than the Democratic more-government argument. (One problem with this one is that post-Reagan, Dems have won three of six presidential elections and Minnesota has gone for the Democratic ticket in all six of those election, plus three more before that.)

But if you keep thinking about all those Dem presidential wins mixed in with all those Repub gubernatorial wins, you’ll practically have the secret explanation for  all those DFL guv elections losses (or at least the explanation I’ve been leading up to all this time.)

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They never happen at the same time. Minnesota’s gubernatorial elections are always at the midterm of presidential terms. OK, maybe that seems obvious. But it’s a big deal anyway because …

Voter turnout is always lower, and significantly lower, in non-presidential election years. I calculated the turnout in Minnesota elections going back to 1974. In the nine presidential cycles, the average voter turnout was 75.5 percent of those eligible to vote. (Undoubtedly the highest in the nation, by the way.) By contrast, in the nine midterm years — aka the nine years in which gubernatorial elections were held — the average turnout was 57.7 percent, almost 20 percentage points less. The highest turnout in a gubernatorial year was lower than the lowest turnout in a presidential year.

(If you want the raw data, follow this link to the MN Secretary of State’s website and click on “Minnesota election statistics, 1950-2008” for a pdf of turnout figures.)

And that, of course, is a big deal because high-turnout elections are considered to give an advantage to Democrats, and low-turnout elections give an advantage to Republicans, presumably (I suspect political scientists have some data that makes this more than a presumption) because a larger portion of Republicans turn out for every election, while a larger portion of Democratic voters drop into and out of the electorate depending, on their level of enthusiasm.

If you’re skeptical about this, here’s one more way to demonstrate it. Because U.S. Senate terms are six years, they are out of sync with the cycle in which presidential and gubernatorial elections alternate every two years. Senate elections are just as likely to be in presidential or gubernatorial years. Going back to 1972 there have been 14 U.S. Senate elections in Minnesota. Democrats have won seven of them, and Republicans have won seven.

But if you break the Senate elections down by whether they coincided with presidential or gubernatorial  election years, it turns out that…

DFLers have won the Senate race in five out of seven of the elections that were held in presidential years and Republicans have won five of the seven elections held in gubernatorial election years. I offer this only as corroboration of the hypothesis that high turnout  (presidential election years) helps DFLers on the Minnesota ballot and low turnout (gubernatorial years) helps the Repubs. I’m certain that Norm Coleman would have beaten Al Franken if not for the significant jump in DFL turnout associated with the Obama campaign.

Like most states, Minnesota used to have two-year terms for governors. New Hampshire and Vermont are the only states that still have two-year terms. From statehood until the 1880s, Minnesota held its gubernatorial elections in odd-numbered years. Then, in 1962, Karl Rolvaag became the first governor elected to a four-year term. I don’t know if any thought was given to whether the state wanted its guv election aligned with presidential or mid-term election years, but 35 states ended up in the midterm years.

If I’m right — that this represents a permanent Repub advantage in guv elections and is at least a partial, if seldom-mentioned, explanation for Republican guv success — there isn’t much the DFL can do about it except try to turn out its base without the benefit of a presidential updraft.