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Independence Party standard-bearers see big silver lining in poll results’ dark cloud

Only members of the Independence Party could look at a poll showing their candidate 21 points down in the Minnesota governor’s race with nine weeks to go and feel optimistic.

But when IP leaders, past and present, saw Tuesday’s Minnesota Public Radio-Humphrey Institute poll, they saw indecision on the part of many Republicans and DFLers — which looks a lot like viability for the third party.

The numbers look like this: DFLer Mark Dayton and Republican Tom Emmer each had 34 percent of the likely voters. IP nominee Tom Horner had 13 percent.

Horner and former IP gubernatorial candidates Tim Penny and Peter Hutchinson all say that level of support, combined with what they see as weaknesses of Dayton and Emmer, puts the party in good shape, at least for the moment.

The people who follow politics closely, the people who write the checks that sustain campaigns, will see 13 percent as good enough at this point, Horner believes.

The ‘chicken-and-egg thing’


“It’s a chicken-and-egg thing,” said Horner: You have to have sufficient resources to build name ID and bigger base. You have to show some chance of winning to be able to attract the support that allows you to build.

The 13 percent does that, Horner said.

Tom Horner

MinnPost/Jana Freiband
Tom Horner

“People who watch things closely understand where we are,” he said.

What’s crucial now, Horner said, is that he show growth in ensuing polls in the next few weeks: First, into the high teens, and then “break the 20 percent barrier in October.”

In the previous two elections, the IP ran strong candidates, who for different reasons faltered at the end.

But Penny, the former U.S. congressman who was pitted against Roger Moe and newcomer Tim Pawlenty, and Hutchinson, who faced incumbent Pawlenty and Attorney General Mike Hatch, said there are unique circumstances that could push Horner over the top.

Penny, who was reached on his West Coast honeymoon, does offer one real obstacle for any IP candidate.

“The Democrat and the Republican always are going to have their 25 to 30 percent base,” he said. “The Independent candidate starts every election from square one. The Independent has to earn every single vote.”

Given that, Penny said, Horner is in a good spot. If the poll is correct, he’s “already” built a base of 13 percent. Minnesotans should remember, Penny said, that Jesse Ventura was only in the teens in terms of support at this point in what turned out to be his victorious 1998 race.

Just as important, neither Emmer nor Dayton has shown the ability to sew up his respective base. That’s particularly a problem for Emmer, according to Horner, a lifelong Republican who left a party that he believes has taken a sharp right turn from the Minnesota mainstream.

Tim Penny

Tim Penny

Typically, Republicans are very loyal to whoever their standard bearer is, which is vital to Republican Party success.

“Emmer has to have 95 to 96 percent of his base,” Horner said. “He’s nowhere close to that.”

And although the poll showed that Horner so far is chipping off more support from wayward DFLers than he is from Republicans, he believes that will begin to change in coming weeks. He predicts more and more “business leaders” will feel comfortable moving away from their Republican Party home as they see others make that move.

Pie-in-the-sky thinking?

Perhaps.

Unique dynamics?
But Penny points out what he believes to be a unique dynamic of this race.

“Horner is stable, solid and consistent,” Penny said. “Either of the others is capable of self-destructing.”

Unforeseen events can shape races like nothing else, he believes.

Penny, for example, believes it was the death of U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone that changed the shape of Minnesota politics in 2002. Up until the late-October plane crash, Penny said he had been polling almost evenly with Pawlenty and DFLer Roger Moe.

The emotions that came out of Wellstone’s death and the emotional (and partisan) memorial service sent voters scurrying back to their parties, Penny said. Pawlenty, who appeared to be a relatively safe moderate, won the governor’s race with 44 percent of the vote; Roger Moe finished with 36 per cent and Penny 16 percent.

This year, an unforeseen event, most likely a big gaffe from a candidate, could change campaign dynamics. Candidates’ supporters, too, could play a key role, too, IP supporters say.

They believe that Horner is helped by efforts from organizations supporting Emmer or Dayton that are spending huge amounts in trying to slime their major opponent. Every time you see an ad blasting Emmer or Dayton, Horner stands to gain, they reason.

“That’s what happened with Ventura,” Penny said.

(Recall the debates involving Ventura, DFLer Skip Humphrey and Republican Norm Coleman. Humphrey and Coleman would snipe at each other, making Ventura, who would shake his head in disgust at the two, seem like the mature adult to many.)

In 2006, Hutchinson, like Horner, came across as the stable, consistent voice in the middle between Hatch and Pawlenty. Yet, he picked up just 6 percent of the vote. Isn’t that as likely an outcome for Horner?

Hutchinson doesn’t think so. “In a sense,” he said, “I was running against two incumbents.”

Peter Hutchinson

Peter Hutchinson

And both of those two, Hutchinson said, played the traditional role of running toward the middle after winning party nominations.

“That’s the biggest difference between my race and this race,” Hutchinson said. “Not only are there no incumbents, but they [Dayton and Emmer] are taking more strident positions. That means the middle is much more in play.”

But — and there always are “buts” when dealing with the IP — there’s nothing so “squishy” as the middle, Hutchinson said.

Leaners and undecideds in the middle
In the middle, you find leaners, undecideds and true independents. Where they’ll end up is anybody’s guess.

Leaners are especially hard for IPers to win over. A DFL leaner may not like Dayton but is so afraid of an Emmer victory that he or she will stick with the DFL rather than risk a vote on Horner. The opposite is true of Republican leaners.

All IP candidates are familiar with the refrain “I wanted to vote for you, but …”

“I think I’ve heard it thousands of times,” said Hutchinson. “A friend of mine told me that as soon as you hear the word ‘but,’ you can ignore everything else that was said before it.”

The “yes, but” syndrome is why Horner’s position is the most precarious. If the next few polls show him still in the 13 percent range, he’s in big trouble, barring of course, the major act of self-destruction.

Still, for the moment, Horner’s not in a bad spot.

He’s being treated equally to the others by major media outlets, a treatment he says he’s earned.

“I’ve received fair coverage,” Horner said, “because I’m saying real things. I’m talking about substantive issues. Some may disagree, some agree but people want substance, and I’m offering that.”

For the moment, Horner says, 13 percent is good enough.

“My great advantage,” he said, “is that Emmer and Dayton are making no pretense of moving toward the middle. People are saying, ‘Wait, there has to be somebody saying something different.’ “

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/01/2010 - 10:22 am.

    These poll numbers present plenty of opportunity for Tom Horner to connect with voters. I think the poll says more about the two major party candidates than anything else.

    Perhaps the poll is saying that both Emmer and Dayton are too polarizing to the more moderate voters in the DFL and GOP parties. That could be the reason for the high percentage of undecideds.

  2. Submitted by andy on 09/01/2010 - 11:01 am.

    Another election cycle, another spoiler showing up to deliver the state to the worst possible candidate.

    And yeah, it doesn’t help that the way we pick candidates is completely backwards. Hey DFL- how about caucusing to pick a SLATE of candidates and then endorse the winner after the Primary? At least then you’ll know who has the chops to best appeal to voters!

  3. Submitted by Lance Groth on 09/01/2010 - 11:34 am.

    “Another election cycle, another spoiler showing up to deliver the state to the worst possible candidate.”

    Even though this has happened in the past (our current governor, of course, won both of his elections with pluralities), and even though I believe that an Emmer victory would be catastrophic for the Minnesota that I treasure, I’m not going to blame the IP for being “spoilers”. Democratic elections are fair game for all, and it’s up to the major parties to field candidates that have broad enough appeal to get elected. If the Repubs weren’t obsessed with “purifying” their base of moderates and moving as far to the right as possible, and if the Dems in response weren’t moving further left, a centrist 3rd party candidate would find it much more difficult to attract support. I think that the fact that an IP candidate who most people have never heard of is already polling 13% bears that out pretty plainly.

    Personally, I wish that we had a broader selection of candidates to choose from, and instant runoff voting, so that reasonable people would have a better chance of being elected. As it is, the choice is too often between a candidate that one finds to be truly horrendous, and the other guy who is less so, but who still causes one to hold one’s nose while voting.

  4. Submitted by Laura Knudsen on 09/01/2010 - 02:30 pm.

    I’m an independent who only began answering poll questions after becoming political active in the IP. Before that my independent spirit felt it was no bodies business what I was thinking, Now I answer the questions because I understand the nature of political reporting and how polls can cast shadows onto campaigns. I think most people who answer these questions are probably at some level a party faithful. Given that and the spirit of independent voters 13% is a good number. Remember most of your average voters start paying attention after the state fair. It is only those of us who can’t find better hobbies that follow this stuff for month or even years ahead of the election day!

  5. Submitted by John Hakes on 09/01/2010 - 02:33 pm.

    “I think that the fact that an IP candidate who most people have never heard of is already polling 13% bears that out pretty plainly.”

    True that, Mr. Groth- especially since so many veteran, reasonable, bipartisan voices are either expressly or implicitly endorsing Tom Horner (e.g. U.S. Rep. D-Tim Penny, Sen. R-Dave Durenberger, State Epidemiologist Michael Olsterholm (a previous non partisan) and folks like Jay Kiedrowski– a widely respected former tax analyst, Mpls Budget Director and State Finance Commissioner, whom MPR reported yet again today is advocating a blended approach of tax increases and cuts– just like Tom Horner is.

    The Tom Horner/Mulder base is picking up more believers each and every day– and this will continue until voting day on November 2.

    http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2010/05/11/kiedrowski/

  6. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 09/01/2010 - 08:25 pm.

    Wow, Horner’s got the support of the IP candidate who finished a distant third two elections back? And a senator who left office in 1995 under felony indictment? Plus Olsterholm and Kiedrowski?!!! Holy crap, I don’t know how this guy can lose!

    Seriously, we get this story every four years and the result is going to be the same. Maybe Horner gets 5 percent and maybe he gets 15, but he isn’t going to come anywhere close to winning the election. Horner seems like a nice guy with reasonable positions who probably would make a really good governor. The fact remains, though, that he is an unknown who is going to be vastly outspent by the Republican and Democratic candidates, and vastly outworked by their party organizations. Jesse Ventura was a charasmatic celebrity with near 100 percent name recogition, a history successfully running for office in Minnesota, and a message that got him to 37 percent in a three way race. Horner, like Hutchinson and Penny before him, is no Jesse Ventura. It just is not going to happen.

    I don’t say this for the benefit of the hard-core Horner and IP supporters – I can’t really refute (refudiate?) viability arguments that are based on nothing more than wishful thinking anyway. Rather, this needs to be pointed out to those who think there might be a difference between having Mark Dayton and Tom Emmer as governor. If you don’t think there is a meaningful difference, then vote for Horner. Or stay home that day, which will accomplish the same thing. But if you think you might wake up on November 3rd and you realize that you did have a preference, you might want to think twice about throwing your vote away on Horner.

    Finally, Tim Penny – its been eight years and you really need to get some help. You didn’t lose that election because a candidate in another race died. You just flat out got crushed.

  7. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/01/2010 - 11:25 pm.

    Don’t go towards the light Dan….. it’s a train….

  8. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 09/03/2010 - 02:24 pm.

    Richard, I am pretty sure its just a guy with a flashlight.

    Answer me this: at what point (if any) does it become clear that Horner is nothing more than a spoiler? If he is still polling at 13 percent 10 days before the election, can we rule him out? Or is it never too late? Is there a tipping point that he has to reach?

  9. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/03/2010 - 06:21 pm.

    Dan, good one regarding the “flashlight”. Absent money and major backing the logical thinking would be to write him off. I get that.

    I’ll wait till early Oct to get a better measure on his viability. Plenty of opportunity for things to happen up until then.

    Most are hypothetical of course. Will Emmer and Dayton eventually go negative towards the end? (likely) Will Emmer be able to keep his temper in check for the remainder of the campaign. (it would be fun to see him blow his cork)

    Dayton has been pretty solid so far. He might want to emphasize the tax fairness thing a bit more. I think that will resonate with voters if he can successfully communicate that particular aspect of his plan. Otherwise Emmer will just hammer away at Dayton raising taxes on everyone.

    It really comes down to what if any plan Emmer manages to commit to paper. If it’s all slogan and no substance then Dayton might be able to hammer away at Emmer’s plan.

    But to directly answer your point, I think that it’s too early to write Horner off. To be honest, I am not really sure where the MN voting public is at during this election. The trends say conservative. That should help Horner the moderate republican or does it help Emmer, the tea party and Sara Palin backed candidate?

  10. Submitted by Bruce Anderson on 09/03/2010 - 09:39 pm.

    The great news for Horner is that Dayton and Emmer are now at their low points of polling so far at 34%–the drop continues. And, as a result the undecided bucket has grown to 21%.

    Horner has a great opportunity to empty that bucket.

  11. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/03/2010 - 11:23 pm.

    I agree with Bruce. I’ve seen nothing else that would indicate otherwise. I have to give Dayton and Emmer credit for going all in, too far left and too far right. I think that enough folks can be persuaded to vote for the moderate in this campaign for Horner to win.

    If national polls are any indication, this election should be a decisive victory for Emmer. But the GOP base choose the most conservative candidate available. The DFL did the opposite and found the most liberal candidate. The polls say it all, at least for this week. I wonder how long it will be before Emmer’s secret weapon, Sarah Palin shows up to campaign for him…..

  12. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 09/04/2010 - 09:06 pm.

    Fair enough, Richard – I won’t ask you to write off Horner yet. There is plenty of time left and a lot can happen.

    All I ask of you is this: if we get to the last 10 days and Horner is still a distant third, think hard about your second choice for governor the next four years and where best to place your vote.

  13. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/05/2010 - 07:26 pm.

    FiveThirtyEight Blog @ NYT is out with it’s: “Governor Race Ratings” The 538 computer model for 9/3 forecasts a 79% chance of a DFL win for the state of Minnesota.

    Dayton 46.9
    Emmer 41.1
    Horner 9.5

    http://elections.nytimes.com/2010/forecasts/governor/minnesota

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