Why Franken won and the lessons we all learned

Last August I wrote that Al Franken could still win.  Little did anyone know back then that it would take nearly a year to determine who would become our next U.S. senator. And that while the indicators I laid out were critical, it was a gutsy call by his campaign manager that would ultimately win Franken the race.

In the end, the recount made Franken, former Sen. Norm Coleman and Minnesota better — or at least we hope so.

The lessons we should take from this race are that political operatives can make the difference in an election and that core Minnesota values of humility and populism are recipes for success.

Campaign operatives were key
As his campaign struggled with major issues inside the DFL power structure, troublesome writings in Playboy and tax issues, Franken found himself behind by 15 points. But now that the contest is over, it’s clear that this is a case of Franken winning the race on strategy and execution more than it’s a case of Coleman losing the race on mistakes he made. 

Franken was competitive for various reasons, including the political environment, fundraising success and name ID.  That said, he won because of the thinking and strategy of senior staff toward the end of the campaign. That team included Stephanie Schriock, Eric Schultz and Dan Cramer. Without that talent, it is unlikely Franken would have won.

Cramer joined the campaign late as its field director and his calm presence and strategic thinking meant that Franken won the ground game.  The field operation was responsible for absentee ballots, get-out-the vote and, most importantly, training the field team on what to do in the event of a recount.

Schultz brought maturity and discipline to Franken’s media operation. Instead of merely reacting to attacks by Coleman and others, Schultz flipped the tone and strategy of the operation to a mature and confident media team that promoted a newly disciplined candidate.

But Schriock deserves the ultimate credit. Her early recognition that the race was likely to be extremely close and could include a recount (as documented by my colleague Doug Grow) was simply genius. Her call to build a recount team, including attorney Marc Elias, was ultimately the difference.  It was the piece of the campaign that Coleman insiders concede they were unprepared for and legally out-maneuvered on. 

Franken’s campaign triumvirate had a quiet confidence in each other and displayed a nimbleness that most campaigns don’t have and that Franken desperately needed. 

As an incumbent, Coleman faced the challenge of dealing with numerous close advisers who didn’t always agree on campaign strategy.  Coleman himself was noticeably annoyed by the fact that Franken was a legitimate candidate and he had trouble grasping how Minnesotans could vote for Franken.  It’s not the first time Coleman underestimated his opponent and failed to rise to a higher level of politics.

In the end, this entire gut-wrenching and hand-wringing experience of a recount was a good thing and a reminder of the political values of Minnesota.

Humility and authenticity
Both Franken and Coleman needed more humility and authenticity. Had either of them won outright on election night, it is unlikely they would be the same men that they are after the recount. For Franken, a man who wrote books entitled “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot,” humility and proper tone were critical lessons that evolved throughout the campaign. For Coleman, this campaign was likely a reminder that being himself is the best strategy.  His confidence or arrogance after winning in 2002 and his close alignment with former President George W. Bush weren’t the qualities of the Norm Coleman we saw when he was as mayor of St. Paul or during the immediate aftermath of the Wellstone plane crash.

Minnesota independence
Since 1990 we have had a highly volatile electorate in Minnesota. But considering the trend is now 18 years running, maybe we can’t call it volatile any more.  It’s our inherent populism combined with the changing nature of high-dollar, intensely fought campaigns that makes anything possible on Election Day.  The sheer closeness of this election should be a lesson for the 2010 governor’s race — and it likely will live with Coleman and Franken every day of their political futures.

Improve our system
We have a great election system in Minnesota. The issues and problems revealed by the recount deserve reform and new legislation. Most notably, the variables in county-by-county review of ballots should be fixed in time for the 2010 election.  If we correct the problems, we can probably avoid ideas like run-off elections or statewide instant run off voting.

Franken can take lessons from Sen. Amy Klobuchar on how to unite the state and work for a better Minnesota despite partisan preference.  For Coleman, he knows Minnesota well. It was his political-maverick streak that originally made him a rising star and that ultimately will be the core of any comeback.

Exhausted by the election and recount, we must show ourselves to be smarter after this trial — just as, I hope, Franken and Coleman will do.

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by William Pappas on 07/01/2009 - 12:19 pm.

    Durring the first half of Franken’s campaign I was completely disappointed with his approach. Everything was measured, he feared alienating anyone and strayed from his populist roots. After receiving criticism from his base Franken became more vocal on issues such as health care while becoming more assertive in countering republican attacks that had nothing to do with the issues. In fact it was his focus on the issues that started to seperate him from Coleman who was trying to distance himself from his record and attack Franken’s personality. Coleman’s tenure as Bush’s attack dog and his negative involvement with the UN began to reveal the reality of Norm as a politician. Coleman is a shape shifter that blows with the political winds. You can call him a “maverick” if you like but he really is a man with a challenged morality. In fact Norm’s campaign turned Franken, who was doggedly sticking to the issues on which he was so well informed, into a very sympathetic figure who was beginning to look like a very believable and honest politician. Franken could never achieved that without the vitirol of Coleman’s campaign and other state republican operatives. Another odd fact is that Coleman began to look like a man under seige as the campaign dragged on. His dog face started to sag from the strain and his poor boy demeanor came through even stronger. Meanwhile Franken seemed invigorated and much more energetic. The photo of Coleman in today’s Strib looks like if he turned sideways you might not be able to see him. I think these were huge trends that played out in Franken’s favor.
    As for Coleman’s campaign being unpprepared for a recount they can use it as an excuse. Ultimately not even the Swift Boat lawyer could mount a case in court. Coleman had no case due to the excellent election system in Minnesota. His threats and statements durring the trial concerning the integrity of that system, I believe, also alienated judges as well as many Minnesotans. In fact Coleman’s incompetance in this election from initial strategy to choice of appeals lawyer are evidence enough the man should have been voted out of office.

  2. Submitted by Dan Austin on 07/01/2009 - 12:43 pm.

    I don’t see how you can claim the DFL and Franken’s team were brilliant in managing the recount process. Granted, their effort after the polls closed was strong but look at their efforts BEFORE the vote and this election was not one of favoring Franken over Coleman as much as it was a combination of the public wanting to put Obama in office and the dissatisfaction with any incumbent Republican. If you look at the results, over 300,000 votes cast for Obama didn’t make it into the Franken selection. He couldn’t carry any coattails from Obama, he was so left in the dust, he should be sweating over preparing for his next election in 5 years. Minnesotans favor a moderate Republican (Arne Carlson, Pawlenty, Boschwitz. IF there able to select someone similar, they could re-take the seat. It’s when the GOP starts veering toward the polarized right is when they lose. Similarly, Strong DFL candidates lose as well (most recently-Skip Humphrey, Moe). The land of 2 million middle of the road-ers!

  3. Submitted by Dean Carlson on 07/01/2009 - 01:01 pm.

    Dan above gets close to hitting the nail on the head. The reason why Franken won? Barack Obama. Had Obama won MN by 12 points, Franken wins easily. Obama win MN by 8? Hello Senator Coleman. The fact that Obama won the state by 10 points almost guaranteed the razor thin margin.

  4. Submitted by Ellen Brown on 07/01/2009 - 01:11 pm.

    Are we really satisifed with sending a senator….either Franken or Coleman…. to Washington with only 42% of the vote? It is not in the interests of Minnesotans to “avoid” instant runoff voting. We should welcome it as a way to ensure majority winners.

  5. Submitted by Joe Johnson on 07/01/2009 - 02:49 pm.

    Any other DFLer and I mean any would have beat Coleman by 5 points, probably more. Much like our brilliant election of The Body, Al will also be one done.

  6. Submitted by David Brauer on 07/01/2009 - 02:58 pm.

    For the record, Norm was also one done.

  7. Submitted by Kathy Lilly on 07/01/2009 - 03:34 pm.

    I believe two television ads significantly affected Franken’s subsequent success and Coleman’s failure despite the advantage of incumbency. The Franken ad with his former school teacher humanized him and verified his local roots. VERY effective. The Coleman ad (taking out the garbage) appeared staged and awkward. Almost spooky.

  8. Submitted by Joe Johnson on 07/01/2009 - 04:40 pm.

    DBra – He was also one and done. Could anyone define typical politician better then Sen Coleman. Democrat turned Republican, bad east coast accent, and massive fake teeth. How he was allowed in the party is amazing.

  9. Submitted by William Hansen on 07/01/2009 - 05:01 pm.

    The Minnesota Obama campaign was also instrumental in Franken’s win. I was recruited by the Obama campaign to work get-out-the-vote in a strong DFL area. They clearly knew, two weeks before the election, that Obama would win Minnesota but Franken was in danger. We worked hard for every Franken vote we could find. Outstanding political organization on Obama’s part!

  10. Submitted by William Pappas on 07/01/2009 - 06:09 pm.

    What I was getting at is that Franken won due to the incompetance of Norm’s campaign strategy which seemed to come largely from the head of the Minnesota Republican Party which is definitely the blind leading the blind. Al Franken has spent the last ten years becoming a policy wonk and is extremely well informed. I anticipate he’ll be an effective progressive Senator. Did you ever think Wellstone would be as popular as he was? He was on his way to a third term. I predict Franken will go the same way. As Republicans throw their lot in with the corporate oligarchy Franken will work for the middle class as well as the under privlaged. He’ll be popular. Besides, when one party represents the interests of only 15% of the population how do they keep getting votes.

  11. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 07/01/2009 - 08:48 pm.

    Perhaps Joe is correct in stating that most any other DFLer would have beat Coleman. Hat tip to your humor about Coleman the politician.

    Ultimately it comes down to the donor, then an effective organization, and of course name recognition. Which Franken had more of than most. With perhaps the exception of Mike Ceresi.

    As far as “one and done”, could be, hard to tell. After all, Franken just recaptured Wellstone’s seat and from what I can remember, Wellstone was about to beat Coleman in a closely contested senate race.

    In politics, one year is a lifetime, six years is eons in political life. Franken has 5.5 years to earn our respect. Or at a minimum 50.1 % of it

  12. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/02/2009 - 08:43 am.

    The status quo has always been afraid of populism because it threatens to upset existing power strucures. One way that power suppresses populism is by promoting the myth that is doesn’t work. To the extent that Democrats denounce populism and populist candidates they betray their reliance on the status quo, special interest, and corporate sponsorship. The failure to embrace populism explains the difficulty that Democrats have been having at the polls for almost 40 years. Hell, even Rudy Boshwitz ran as a populist and won, what does that tell you? This refusal to embrace a populist agenda is the main reason I’m not a Democrat. I’ll vote for them on occasion but I’m not one of them. I’ve been betrayed too many times.

    I voted for Franken. I think Franken was the only one in the Democratic field that could have beat Coleman. Like it or not Coleman had managed to position himself as independent and moderate in the eyes of many Minnesotan’s.

    These appeals to “middlism” are fear based reactions to a challenged status quo. The Democrats needed a liberal candidate, and voters like me put Franken in Office. I refuse to vote for any Democrat who isn’t a liberal candidate. As the current health care debate illustrates, there’s no point in putting Democrats in office if they’re not going to champion a liberal agenda. Ciresi is a republican as far as I can tell, his positions were almost indistinguishable from Colemans on the war and health care. Pallmeyer was my guy on the issues, but he clearly didn’t have the capacity to mount a successful campaign against Coleman. We needed a tough unapologetic liberal who would go toe to toe with Coleman and capture liberal votes and Franken was the only one on the list.

    I just don’t get these middlist warnings about straying too far to the left. The Republicans have strayed way to the right for 40 years and they’ve been winning elections all over the country. The Democrats decided the only way to beat the Republicans was to become Republicans and voter participation has been dropping for decades. Is this aversion to liberal agendas part of the American DNA? 200 years of successful populist battles betrays the dubious notion that Americans are inherently Republicans. Look at Paul Wellstone’s success and popularity. Franken overcame all of the concerns about past behavior and the vicious attack ads by relentlessly promoting a populist/liberal agenda and orientation, that tells you how appealing such an agenda is.

    The fact is that the liberal agenda of peace, justice, equity, and rational public policy currently offers the only workable solutions to the major problems of our time. Why do people think candidates who champion workable solutions can’t win elections? And why don’t Democrats get it? Democrats frequently manage to pull defeat out of the jaws of victory because they talk themselves out of being Democrats. Franken and Obama have shown that candidates who don’t apologize or deny being liberals can achieve stunning electoral victories.

    I predict Franken will be a successful Senator, and will win multiple terms. Now that he’s on the job he will win the trust and confidence of Minnesotan’s and his humor and personable demeanor will be huge assets.

  13. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 07/02/2009 - 03:10 pm.

    To Dean and those of you commenting on how Franken did worse than Obama, you miss what should be obvious. There was no strong third party candidate in the presidential race, but there was in the senate. When I looked at the numbers in Minneapolis, I noticed that adding Barkely and Franken’s votes equaled Obama. Statewide, it was more mixed, as Barkely took some Coleman votes too. Nonetheless, in all likelihood, if there was no strong third party, Franken would have won without a recount.

    To Chris regarding IRV, first, Blois never mentioned IRV, you did, so he didn’t say it wouldn’t have helped. In fact, look at my comments on Barkely’s effect, and it indicates that IRV would have prevented the recount instead of complicating it. Besides, the recount ended in January. Everything since then has been court proceedings, almost all of which was about the validity of a tiny number of absentee ballots that were mostly not opened, so IRV would hardly have been a complicating factor.

  14. Submitted by Rebecca Hoover on 08/28/2009 - 10:18 pm.

    The comment that Franken could learn a lesson from Klobuchar seems to be an interesting one as I read this article for the first time this Aug. 28. Klobuchar seems to be headed for trouble from what I can see. In the trenches I keep hearing complaints that Klobuchar does nothing but ever so cute cheerleading (dig out the pom poms) and fluff legislation. Those in the trenches are especially angry about her dithering and do nothing stance on health insurance reform. At the rate things are going, Amy seems to be headed towards a title of Senator Ditherer or perhaps Senator Pom Pom.

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