Friday, January 2, 2009

2006 to 2008, Part 2: the Senate race

Even though the winner is still up in the air, I think we have enough information to begin breaking down what happened and why.

When looking to make comparisons I think it is more appropriate to compare this year's Senate race to the 2006 Governor's race than to the 2006 Senate race. The dynamics between the 2008 Senate and 2006 Governors race are similar while the dynamics of the two Senate races are quite different. First of all the 2006 Senate race was for an open seat previously held by the DFL and the race featured a successful, dynamic and generally well liked woman against a generic GOP white male. In both the 2006 Governor's race and the 2008 Senate race we had a GOP incumbent running against a white male DLFer.

Let's take a quick look at the numbers from the two elections


Pawlenty(R-inc) 47%

Hatch(D) 46%

Hutchinson(I) 6%


Coleman(R-inc) 41%

Franken(D) 41%

Barkley(I) 15%

Obviously the biggest difference in the numbers is the amount of support received by the IP candidate. The few polls that tried to measure who Barkley was drawing votes from seemed to indicate that he was drawing about equally from both candidates, maybe slightly more from Coleman than Franken but look at this pollster graph:

Almost from the moment the election started Franken was losing support. Coleman, on the other hand, was doing okay until two things happened that began to bring his numbers down, Dean Barkley entered the race and the economy went south. In fact Barkley's peak conforms almost exactly to Coleman's low point. You can see that some of these people went back to Coleman before the election, as the ramifications of the bailout began to sink in and anger subsided a little, but the damage was done.

How many of these Barkley voters could have been persuaded to the DFL? Probably not many, too many people were turned off by both Coleman and Franken. A poll conducted by SurveyUSA on December 4th showed that if the election were held again people would pretty much vote the same way, meaning even though Barkley voters knew how close the race was and how much their vote really mattered they would still cast it for Barkley. The Senate race was a really nasty campaign so it's no surprise that many people still feel unable to vote for either major party candidate.

Another of the similarities between 2006 and 2008 to consider is that the DFL was somewhat divided on who to nominate. In both cases some progressives were disappointed in the DFLs choice and this disappointment carried through the entire election. I went door-knocking with more than a few people who were still not sold on Franken, even though they were passing out his literature. I heard similar sentiments in 2006 about Hatch. I felt the same way about John Kerry in 2004. It's difficult to overcome your chosen candidate's loss when you suffer from rabid True Believerism.

How do you bring a party back together after a closely contested primary? That was the question on everyone's mind even before we knew who got the Democratic Presidential nomination but in the end it didn't matter, that race was a blowout. The emergence of groups like PUMA goes to show that some portion of the activists will have a hard time getting behind the nominee, even when it's a once in a generation caliber candidate. There are a lot of activists that lie somewhere in the middle though and these people need to be given a reason to support a candidate, not just party unity, and that reason needs to come from the candidate.

How much of an effect this had in the end is hard to know, but in a race this close, that everyone knew would be close, any little thing can be huge. During a Presidential cycle when enthusiasm on our side was sky high, Franken wasn't able to generate any more enthusiasm than Coleman. In the closing days of the campaign the best reason the Franken campaign could give people to vote for their candidate was that he could provide Barack Obama with the Senate majority he will need to pass key legislation. How this became the campaigns closing argument I'll never understand, but it seems to me that a closing argument should explain why a candidate could best serve the people voting for them. The best the Franken campaign could come up with for this was that he'll vote with Obama.

I don't think it can be overstated how weak this argument is on its own, much less as a closing argument. During a campaign when Al Franken criticized Norm Coleman incessantly for voting lockstep with President Bush, the reason he gave people to vote for him was that he would vote in lockstep with President Obama. Among the many messaging mistakes of the Franken campaign this was the largest.

The thing is this; both Norm Coleman and Tim Pawlenty are smart politicians. They both ran with the advantages of incumbency and are very popular within the GOP base. That said the DFL had a shot in both races and a good one, even with a somewhat fractured base. You put a candidate like Amy Klobuchar in an open seat race with the party united behind her and it's no contest. The DFL has a structural advantage in the state and if the 2008 Senate race and 2006 Governors race can teach us anything, it's that we need to make an even bigger effort to consolidate our base in the future.

If there is one thing the Obama campaign can teach us at the state level it's that we should not be afraid of all the ways that the opposition can attack a candidate or that candidates perceived inability to win. We should instead focus on who we want to represent us and who can bring the party together behind them rather than trying to drag the party along with them. A really well run campaign helps too.

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