Over the last 20 years of being involved in politics, I’ve spent hours watching returns trickle in on Election Day. Usually, I’m either happy or disappointed with the results. But there have been two times when my reaction was something else: shock.
The first time was on Nov. 3, 1998, the day Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota. At the time, I was a young Republican staffer, working on the campaign of Norm Coleman, who was then running against Ventura and Democrat Skip Humphrey. Over the course of that campaign, I had observed Ventura continually buck the conventional rules of politics, which would ultimately lead to his surprising victory on Election Day.
Almost two decades later, I experienced that same feeling when Donald Trump was elected president.
There have been other parallels. On the campaign trail, both men tended to say whatever they felt like saying, the way they wanted to say it. Both found that the conventional rules of politics didn’t apply to them. And in the immediate aftermath of both elections, voters, the media, and political pundits were in disbelief at the results. In 1998, even the people who voted for Ventura were shocked that he won. Sound familiar?
So, as we we wait for Trump to officially become the 45th president of the United States, can we prepare ourselves for his four years as president by reviewing Ventura’s four years as governor?
Every day, it seems, we learn how difficult it is to measure an unconventional candidate such as Trump — like Ventura before him — by conventional standards. But two unconventional candidates can be unconventional for different reasons. And one of the inherent problems with trying to predict how Trump will act during his presidency is that, as with Ventura, even Trump doesn’t know what he is going to do in many situations, even on matters he’s already taken positions on.
Remember, Ventura took office promising to reduce the size of state government. Yet overall state spending increased during his years as governor. He campaigned on a pledge to veto any tax increases, but then proposed raising the gas tax, increasing the sales tax on cigarettes, and extending the sales tax to include car repairs and legal services.
There’s another big difference. Ventura came into office as the lone elected official from the Reform Party. He had no natural political allies at the state Capitol to help advance his agenda. This isolated him politically, which hardened his relationship with legislators.
As a Republican, Trump will have elected majorities in Congress and an energized party apparatus to promote his policies. The party infrastructure around Trump should also help (maybe) temper his rough edges.
There are two things Trump and Ventura do share. One is a complicated and contentious relationship with the media. Ventura’s encounters with journalists became so hostile that his office famously issued press credentials labeled “Official Jackal” to reporters. (Ventura’s office claimed it was a joke, but the humor was lost on many.)
The other, of course, is the idea that many believed their candidacies were a joke. Minnesota survived Ventura just fine. It’s anybody’s guess who’ll be laughing after four years of Donald Trump.