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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.