Tom Emmer is losing the governor’s race. Of the 12 polls released since June, only one showed the Republican gubernatorial nominee with a lead – and that was a statistically meaningless one-point edge.
According to the website Real Clear Politics, Democrat Mark Dayton’s lead in the governor’s race averages out to 6.8 percentage points when all relevant polls are considered. Polling guru Nate Silver, of FiveThirtyEight.com, pegs Dayton’s chances of victory at 80 percent. Most polls show Emmer failing to lock down about 25 percent of self-identified Republicans.
But despite this litany of statistics suggesting his imminent defeat, Emmer’s prospects should not be dismissed. The DFL Party’s perverse streak of futility in gubernatorial contests – losing every one since 1990 – coupled with the volatility of this election year, means the GOP remains very much in the hunt.
“I think it’s going to be a very close battle,” said Cullen Sheehan, Emmer’s campaign manager. “And I think it will be a long election night as we wait for results to come in.”
The outcomes of the last three governor’s races, in particular, should provide hope to Emmer and the GOP. In 1998, a Minnesota Public Radio poll showed DFL nominee Hubert H. Humphrey, III, with a commanding 13-point lead with less than a month to go before Election Day. He ended up a distant third.
Four years later, Republican Tim Pawlenty looked like a long shot as the campaign neared its end. Three weeks before Election Day, SurveyUSA pegged Pawlenty’s support at 23 percent, well behind his two major party rivals. He won by 8 percent.
In the last election cycle, DFL nominee Mike Hatch seemingly had the contest locked up, with all eight polls taken in the final month of the campaign showing him with a lead. But when the ballots were counted, Pawlenty won a second term.
Of course, each of those campaigns had eccentricities that make them problematic case studies for predicting what might transpire in 2010. Hatch imploded in the final week of the campaign, calling a reporter a “Republican whore.” The death of Paul Wellstone – and the ensuing controversy over the politically charged memorial service – fundamentally altered the metrics of the 2002 contest. And the presence of Jesse Ventura on the ballot in 1998 meant all normal rules of political combat went out the window.
But political observers believe recent history does at least suggest that this year’s contest hasn’t seen its last electoral wrinkle. “The last couple of weeks matter,” said Brian McDaniel, a veteran GOP operative and lobbyist with the firm of Lockridge Grindal Nauen. “Minnesotans are willing to change their votes in the last couple of weeks depending on either weird circumstances, weird candidates or a comment here or there.”
Stacy Hunter-Hecht, a political science professor at Bethel University, in St. Paul, also points out that pollsters are still struggling with how to accurately reflect voter sentiments in an era when the percentage of people who use only cell phones is rapidly increasing. “Obviously there’s been a lot of noise in the polls,” said Hunter-Hecht. “We’ve got an electorate that’s really hard to get a handle on this time around.”
Republicans are hoping that a couple of wild cards might open the door to an Emmer upset. They point out that the GOP nominee started out the campaign as a relatively unknown quantity outside of party activist circles and that he endured an onslaught of negative advertising from DFLers throughout the summer. Most notably, the Alliance for a Better Minnesota’s ad attacking Emmer for a pair of drunk-driving convictions is believed to have hurt his electoral prospects, particularly with female voters.
“He was basically unknown and beaten up for months and months and months,” said Rep. Matt Dean, GOP-Dellwood, who is overseeing the GOP House caucus’ electoral efforts. “So it’s taken time for Tom to introduce himself to Republicans statewide.”
Of course, a fair amount of the damage that Emmer endured during the summer months was self-inflicted. His ham-fisted rollout of a proposal to cut hourly wages for employees who receive tips was widely regarded as a disaster. Emmer’s pre-primary fundraising was anemic despite his having no competition for the GOP donor base. And in August, the campaign announced a shakeup, with Sheehan and Chris Georgacas, a veteran GOP strategist, brought aboard to right the ship.
Another dynamic that could prove crucial for Emmer’s prospects is the volatility of the electorate in a year where Republicans are expected to win big across the country. It’s uncertain how the much ballyhooed “enthusiasm gap” for GOP candidates and causes will play out on Election Day. “Over the course of the summer and fall,” said Dean, “things have gotten progressively better for Republicans across the state just in terms of energy and activity and grassroots enthusiasm.”
That said, the fact that DFLers have been in the gubernatorial wilderness for so long could obviate the enthusiasm gap. Jeff Blodgett, executive director of Wellstone Action, points out that turnout for the DFL primary in August far exceeded expectations, suggesting that Minnesota Democrats might not be as apathetic as their counterparts in other states. “DFLers are very engaged in this election and that’s because it’s been 20 years since there’s been a DFL governor,” said Blodgett, who oversaw Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign in Minnesota. “Here we’ve got change on our side, and that’s a good thing.”
In addition, Democrats certainly aren’t underestimating Emmer’s chances. Two decades of defeats will cause political operatives to treat even the most wounded campaign with respect. “You can’t take anything for granted,” said Blodgett. “This is a very volatile time in our country’s political history. You have to run hard until Election Day.”
For the final electoral push, Emmer’s campaign has made a large television advertising buy – approaching $800,000 as of last week. In addition, he’ll almost certainly get assistance from allied independent political groups, most notably Minnesota’s Future and MN Forward, both of which have been running ads in support of his campaign.
Beginning Thursday, Emmer will be staging daily rallies across the state to stir up the GOP faithful. The first day’s itinerary: Elk River and St. Cloud. “It’s just trying to shore up your support and trying to convince those last few people that are making up their minds,” said Sheehan, of the final electoral push. “It’s time for the blocking and tackling. It’s the grunt work.”