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The morning after the morning after: What we learned from the 2018 election

Five things we know — or think we know — in the wake of Tuesday’s voting. 

DFL Election Night party attendees
Attendees of Tuesday night's DFL gathering in St. Paul cheering.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

Five things we know — or think we know — after the 2018 election.

1. Minnesota is exceptional
This seems too weird to be true, but it is both weird and true: Minnesota will have the only state Legislature in the country not controlled by the same party. With Republicans retaining a one-vote majority in the Senate after winning the only race from that body on the ballot, and with DFL regaining control of the House, the Legislature is split.

And somehow, that is no longer the case in any other state after Tuesday. Seven state legislative bodies shifted from GOP control to Democratic control. This must happen a lot, right? But, no: Governing Magazine quoted someone from the National Conference of State Legislatures who said it hasn’t happened since 1914.

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One reason for Minnesota’s uniqueness is the way it staggers its state Senate elections. The state does not have regular Senate elections in the sixth and eighth years after redistricting, which allowed Republicans to avoid the DFL tide this year. Had the GOP had to contest more seats on Tuesday, it might have lost the Senate as well.

2. The era of divided government is … continuing
Minnesota has had divided government for the entirety of Gov. Mark Dayton’s second term (to go along with half of his first term). That is, the GOP controlled one or both houses of the Legislature while DFLer Dayton was the executive.

So how will the 2019-20 Legislature be any different? In terms of accomplishments, probably not much. Rather than the governor being a goalie, using his power to stop GOP legislation from becoming law (something the former hockey goalie Dayton was practiced at), any partisan bills will die in the Legislature itself.

Tuesday night, the person expected to become speaker of the House, Melissa Hortman of Brooklyn Park, fired up an already fired-up DFL victory party by listing the issues she wanted to get to work on.“I do think right away we should be working on gun violence prevention, universal health care … and keeping our air and water clean,” she said.

Almost at the same instance in Bloomington, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka of Nisswa offered up his own list of legislative priorities. “Where we can work with the governor, we’re going to work with him,” Gazelka said. “But if he’s going to go and do something like sanctuary state, not going to happen. If he wants to push government-run health care, it’s not going to happen.”

The split might have solved another problem, at least temporarily. The last minute, massive omnibus bills that marked the end of the last two sessions — and that were condemned by both Walz and GOP nominee Jeff Johnson — are less likely to be agreed to by Hortman and Gazelka.

3. Polling had a good night. Negative advertising? Not so much
After 2016, pollsters were criticized for sampling errors that led them to miss the voters who helped elect Donald Trump president. Both pollsters and their media sponsors spent the last two years examining methodology and trying to explain — first to themselves and then to the public — the meaning of probability and margins of error.

Yet there do not seem to be examples of significant polling missteps in 2018 (other than the questions surrounding the point of horse race polls at all). Tuesday’s winners had led in most of the publicly released polls. Close races were close in the polls. Races that had swings, especially the race for Minnesota attorney general, had real-world reasons for those swings.

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DFL nominee Keith Ellison, for example, had the highest name recognition among AG candidates after he filed in June, enough to show him leading in polls and carry him to an easy nomination in August. But allegations raised by former live-in girlfriend Karen Monahan caused many supporters — some of whom were certainly polled — to fall into the undecided category and allowed GOP nominee Doug Wardlow to pull ahead in some polls. But efforts to shore up DFL support by warning voters about a conservative AG’s office under Wardlow allowed Ellison to lead in the final public poll before the election.

Despite the amount of money spent — and the outsized impact it has on political conversations and campaign coverage — there is no evidence that negative campaigning does much to change results. Attempts to quantify it by social scientists has been mixed. A 2017 study by professors from Stanford and the University of California (which included field experiments in real campaigns) found little impact of most campaign techniques, advertising included. Another study on negative advertising by researchers from the University of British Columbia, Emory and Georgetown found limited impact of ads from third parties but some impact if candidates voice the messages themselves.

This cycle, polling done across the weeks of the campaign did not appear to change despite the high number of TV and digital ads, many of them negative.

4. The day after an election is a day for taking stock. And for taking credit.
If negative advertising has any impact, it could be as a motivating force for a candidate’s own voters. That is, it doesn’t change minds so much as alert the like-minded to the threats presented by the other side — and motivate them to take some action.

The same is true for the efforts made by parties and interest groups, including phone calls, text messages and door-knocking. Once friendly voters are identified, efforts are made to make sure they vote. DFL and DFL-leaning organizations had a strategy of finding and spurring progressive voters in Minneapolis and St. Paul to get to the polls. It appears to have been effective. In 2014, the two cities had 9.8 percent of the statewide vote. On Tuesday, they combined for 12.7 percent. If the street-level campaigns contributed to that increase, organizations like Planned Parenthood, TakeAction Minnesota, Protect Minnesota, the AFL-CIO and other labor unions are justified in taking credit, as they all did in post-election statements.

Even the National Rifle Association tried to take credit for one of the few GOP victories Tuesday, issuing a press release about Pete Stauber’s victory in DC8 that said “the men and women of the National Rifle Association played a critical role in this effort.”

5. The GOP owns rural Minnesota
The House DFL caucus began its campaign to retake the body by targeting 12 suburban districts that were carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016 but were won by GOP House candidates that same year. All 12 fell to DFL candidates Tuesday.

In addition, the party picked up the hardest fought open seats currently held by the GOP, defended DFL-held open seats, and held on to all seven DFL-held districts that had been carried by Trump in 2016. The result: The DFL will take a 75-59 majority into the 2019 session, after being in a 77-57 minority last session.

But the election furthered a geographical realignment that mimicked congressional elections. The DFL’s gains came at the expense of Republicans who had been able to hold outer suburbs with relatively moderate candidates. At the same time, the DFL’s support in Greater Minnesota, at least outside population centers like Duluth and Rochester, has gone over to the GOP.

The Twin Cities suburbs, however, have been swingy: shifting from one party to the other, from one election to another, depending on the issues dominating any given year. Whether this alignment has changed that tendency requires more data, that is: more elections.

Data reporter Greta Kaul contributed to this story.