Vin Weber, the Republican bigfoot of Minnesota and Washington who has had a role in most of the major Republican campaigns of recent cycles, recalls it as “the worst political advice I ever gave to any candidate.”
In 1998, he urged the campaign brain trust of Repub gubernatorial candidate Norm Coleman to avoid attacking the Reform Party nominee Jesse Ventura.
No one thought Ventura had any chance to win. And the then-standard conventional wisdom about three-way races was that it was dangerous to go on the attack. If A attacks B, voters might believe the attack but also recoil from A for making it. Thus the only beneficiary might be C.
Eric Johnson was senior advisor to the campaign of DFL nominee Hubert H. (Skip) Humphrey III. They made the same decision and no one in the inner circle disputed it, as best Johnson recalls. First of all, all the polling showed it was a two-way race, and a really, really close one at that, likely to be decided by a point or two.
“Everyone thought it was a risk to go after Jesse,” Johnson said. Both campaigns assumed that Ventura would follow the usual fade-in-the-stretch tendency of third-party candidates. Both campaigns wanted to capture those late-breaking independent voters who would abandon Ventura when they realized he had no chance.
Of course it turns out that Ventura didn’t fade and did have a chance. In fact, a winning chance. And that experience is at least part of the reason that this year DFLer Mark Dayton and Repub Tom Emmer haven’t hesitated to go after IP nominee Tom Horner. They do it all the time during debates. Their allies do it in TV ads. The current ad rotations contain this one from Dayton ally Alliance for a Better Minnesota:
And this one by Emmer ally Minnesota’s Future:
Yes, I will stipulate that these attacks come from the so-called independent groups that aren’t allowed to coordinate with the campaigns, although I don’t take the full “independence” of these groups all that seriously. I’m not alleging secret illegal coordination meetings. It’s just too convenient for the candidates to say they have not run attack ads, knowing that their allies can and will do so and everyone can hide behind the no-coordination dodge. In fact, Eric Johnson told me that one of the reasons no one attacked Jesse in 1998 was that these independent groups didn’t exist and the candidates bore more direct responsibility for the ads.
(It’s worth noting in passing that the existence of these independent groups is yet one more reason that it’s so hard for the IP to win elections.The IP has no such allies pumping in millions of buckaroos and doing some of the dirty work so the candidates don’t have to.)
And it’s also true that the tone of these attacks is quite temperate by today’s standards, hitting horner for his issue positions, as compared with ads that portray Emmer as a drunk driver or Dayton as an erratic coward. Like some other commentators, I’ve noted the impressive politeness (and substance) between the candidates when they debate and even when they attack their opponents on the stump.
I also find it noteworthy that the two ads above take the same approach, in opposite directions. Republicans want you to think you have a choice between one conservative, who won’t raise taxes, and two liberals, who will. DFLers want you to also see a binary choice, a candidate who will tax the rich and fight for ordinary Minnesotans and two Republicans who will tax the middle class and save tax relief for big business and the wealthy.
Of course, the big explanation for the difference between the hands-off attitude toward Ventura and the willingness to take on Horner is that in the fall of 1998, Jesse hadn’t yet rocked the world. He not only pulled off a huge upset, but he ushered a new era of relevant third-party candidates in Minnesota. Although no IPer has won any significant race since Ventura, it’s widely believed that they have determined the outcome of many races by taking more votes from the natural base of one major party or the other.
Johnson isn’t so active in politics any more, but he has observed that since 1998 the Dem and Repub campaigns for all major offices in which there is even a halfway serious IP candidate start early to figure out how and when to address the IP candidate and and their supporters to push them on one side or the other.