For the Independence Party’s Tom Horner, September was a window of opportunity. He reached 18 percent in one gubernatorial poll, setting off speculation about a repeat third-party ascension to the governor’s mansion; he lined up an impressive array of Republican endorsements, including those of former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson and 13 past GOP legislators; and midway through the month he was raising money at the impressive rate of $40,000-plus a day.
But four weeks later, Horner has been unable to push that initial level of support into the 20-plus range that he has said he would need by mid-October to cast himself as a viable candidate. Horner’s 18 percent showing a month ago remains a high-water mark for the campaign, and more recent polls show his support declining. The same KSTP/SurveyUSA poll showed him a month later at 14 percent. So it’s cold comfort that the campaign’s internal polling puts him at the threshold of critical mass with 19 percent.
Still, even if his main opportunity has passed – and the campaign would certainly argue that’s not the case – Horner’s fingerprints will be all over the final tallies for Democrat Mark Dayton and Republican Tom Emmer on November 2.
For the Horner campaign and Independence Party faithful, the effort to rebuild momentum will rely on a rash of newspaper endorsements (including the Star Tribune, the Duluth News Tribune and the Fargo Forum), an advertising push in the final weeks – thanks in part to what the campaign called a “record” fundraising day Monday, although it declined to detail specifics – and soft or topped-out support for Emmer and Dayton. Indeed, the Horner campaign seems to think it’s already made major inroads on Emmer’s support, and now appears to be turning toward Democrats ahead of Election Day.
“I have to make the case that I can win,” Horner said matter-of-factly at a Capitol news conference Tuesday after announcing the endorsement of Mike Ciresi, a long-time Democrat who challenged Dayton in a 2000 U.S. Senate primary and bowed out of the nomination race against Sen. Al Franken in 2008. Ciresi is the most high-profile Democrat to endorse Horner thus far, joining a group of moderate Republicans, although Horner said there will be more DFLers on board before Election Day.
It’s clear that if Horner is going to win, he faces an increasingly steep climb. What remains murky, however, is how Horner’s closing performance will affect Dayton and Emmer as they jockey to shore up their respective bases and to pull in enough independent/moderate votes to patch together a winning coalition.
So far, Horner’s hung his campaign on the assertion that he can play the middleman between two increasingly entrenched and polarized parties. He’s appealed to the political center and independents, saying he’s the only candidate able to compromise and fix the problems facing the state.
But that hasn’t translated into stable support from those voters, a failure that appears to be benefiting Dayton. Horner’s support among moderates and independents dropped 5 points and 8 points, respectively, in the month between KSTP polls. At the same time, Dayton has made corresponding gains in those categories that go a long way toward explaining his month-over-month gain in that survey.
David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University, credited the movement to the Dayton campaign’s tactical shift away from pushing a tax-the-rich agenda to one more focused on education and the economy, effectively co-opting Horner’s message on that front.
“Dayton came back with the shift in focus. He said, ‘Listen I know a lot of about creating jobs, I did this for years,'” as Commissioner of the Minnesota Departments of Economic Development and of Energy and Economic Development, Schultz said. “That brought a lot of people back.”
For Horner to win, he has to break that pro-Dayton shift, said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College. On many issues it’s Horner and Dayton who are more closely aligned when compared to Emmer, meaning that while Horner may currently be taking more Republican votes, he’s unlikely to crack open Emmer’s core 30-or-so percent of support.
“He’s got to take the moderate vote away from Dayton, the suburban vote,” Schier said. “It’s unlikely he’ll get more from Emmer.”
The Horner campaign took what appeared to be the first steps toward that strategy Tuesday, rolling out the Ciresi endorsement and promising additional DFL backing before Election Day. The endorsement from the Star Tribune editorial board over the weekend – which has a reputation of being center-left politically – might help in that regard when it comes to perception and fundraising, although it’s unlikely to move voters en masse the way Horner’s current polling deficit would require.
Without large-scale vote pickup soon – “unless he jumps above 20 percent, his goose is cooked,” Schier said – there’s also the potential that Horner could continue to slide into the low-teens or even single digits. Hamline’s Schultz predicts Horner will finish between 8 percent and 12 percent, in line with what he called the Independence Party’s base support.
What that would do to the Dayton-Emmer dynamics in the race is unclear. “You just don’t know where that will go,” Schier said of current Horner votes if his support recedes. But if Dayton has already gained some of the voters Horner has lost, Emmer would be expected to gain from a continued peeling away of moderate Republicans and independents who support Horner. There remains a big unknown in that equation, though, and that’s whether dispirited would-be Horner supporters would vote at all.
It’s possible, Schultz says, that swing voters currently backing or leaning Horner could stay home if he continues to slide. He says they’re unlikely to turn to Emmer, but suppressed turnout coupled with an unmotivated base could cost Dayton and create an opening for the Republican, who has the luxury of an inherently more motivated base in what’s been described as a potential wave year for his party.
Dean Barkley, who managed Jesse Ventura’s successful 1998 campaign for governor and later lost in his own 2008 IP bid for the U.S. Senate, sees Dayton’s more moderate supporters as Horner’s main target in the final weeks before November 2.
“I think in the next 10 days, it’s Horner’s job to convince those moderate to conservative Democrats,” Barkley said. “If he doesn’t, he will be just like me. At least he’s in the position where he could pull it off.”