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As returns come in, here are some of the key factors campaign vets will be watching in the governor's race.

All eyes on election night

As returns come in, here are some of the key factors campaign vets will be watching in the gov’s race

Despite the consistent lead of DFL nominee Mark Dayton in polls throughout the month of October – a pair of surveys released in the past week claim he holds a 10-plus point edge – campaign pros from both parties believe the gubernatorial campaign is tightening dramatically in its closing days. Most would agree with the assessment of Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier, who told Capitol Report on Thursday, “This is still a wide-open governor’s race.”

That impression was underscored by the KSTP/SurveyUSA poll released later the same evening, which showed Dayton clinging to a statistically inconsequential 1-point lead over Republican Tom Emmer, 39-38. Independence Party candidate Tom Horner, who has been losing supporters over the electability issue, came in at 13 percent. The SurveyUSA numbers probably deserve more credence than the work of other polling shops working in Minnesota this year: According to metrics devised by stat-guru Nate Silver, SurveyUSA has been the nation’s third-most accurate survey firm in its cumulative results since 1998.

So expect a close race and a long night. Here’s a laundry list of factors to keep an eye on as the returns are posted Tuesday night – starting with the most, er, elemental:

Republicans should pray for rain: That’s actually the title of a 2007 study by a trio of political scientists who examined the correlation between weather and voter turnout in presidential elections. They found that every inch of rain reduces voter participation by roughly 1 percent. In addition, each inch of snow suppresses turnout by about 0.5 percent. Republicans typically benefit from lower rates of participation. In fact, the study found that weather may have played a role in the outcome of two presidential elections, 1960 and 2000. Given that Dayton’s polling particularly well with elderly voters (who, as a class, have more trouble navigating inclement conditions), weather could prove even more important in this election. So what’s the forecast look like for Tuesday? As of Friday morning, the long-range forecast called for partly cloudy skies, no precipitation, and a high around 50.

DFL base turnout: For Dayton to win, Minnesota has to buck what is expected to be a national trend of Democratic voter discontent and discouragement. More concretely, it means the DFL has to turn out the base in large numbers in the strongholds of Hennepin and Ramsey counties and on the Iron Range. Liberal analysts and polls have suggested this will happen, owing in part to the culmination of an eight-year war of attrition between DFLers and the administration of Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

As evidence, they point to the robust turnout in this year’s DFL primary. But much of the credit for the big primary totals rest with the now-defunct campaign of party endorsee Margaret Anderson Kelliher, which stressed on-the-ground voter mobilization efforts. DFLers claim the same apparatus will be brought to bear on Dayton’s behalf, but will voters who favored Kelliher comply in the end? Most polls have seemed to indicate that while Dayton’s support among the Democratic faithful has grown, it remains soft among many voters.

Emmer’s performance in CD3: Minnesota’s Third Congressional District, which is dominated by the cluster of well-to-do suburbs on the Twin Cities metro’s western edge, is a case study in where all the moderate, old-school Republican voters have gone as the party honed a harder conservative line. Freshman U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen is expected to win re-election handily, and in 2006 Pawlenty claimed 53 percent of the nearly 300,000 votes for governor cast there, beating DFLer Mike Hatch by a margin of 13 points.

This year, say analysts from both parties, the area has been a bastion of strength for longtime Republican insider Horner’s campaign. Now that his support is eroding in the face of mounting evidence he can’t win, Emmer needs to convert a high percentage of those wannabe Horner voters to his column to win statewide. If voters there stick with Horner in protest, or sit out the election in significant numbers, it’s a major blow to the GOP.

Greater Minnesota still red?: With the exception of the Iron Range, most of the voting public outside the metro area has traditionally gone for Republicans in gubernatorial elections. When you exclude vote totals from the seven-county metro from 2006 governor’s race results, Gov. Tim Pawlenty carried the remainder of the state by a 49 – 45 spread over DFL opponent Mike Hatch. (And note that this is with the DFL-friendly Range results included in outstate totals.)

But as chronicled in a recent Capitol Report story (“Emmer struggling in greater Minnesota,” 10/25), Republican Tom Emmer’s hard line on aids and credits to local governments around the state has engendered a backlash from local officials and hometown newspapers around the state. If Emmer can’t claim a substantial edge among rural and small-town voters, it means he will need a fairly staggering margin of victory from voters in his suburban/exurban geographic stronghold (the counties of Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Scott and Washington).

The DFL gender gap: Ever since Amy Klobuchar’s textbook campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2006, Minnesota political analysts have recognized that suburban women – the so-called “soccer mom” vote – are the state’s quintessential swing voters. Ostensibly, this should be good news for Dayton, who has spent the post-primary campaign season trumpeting the issues of jobs and education that are closest to this demographic’s heart and has racked up a robust lead among women in most polls during the same period.

Emmer, conversely, has had problems attracting the support of women. Insiders from both parties say he was hurt badly by a TV ad hammering his two past DUI citations and a piece of legislation he championed that would have reduced pre-conviction drunk-driving sanctions. Some recent polls still say Dayton enjoys a large advantage among women (he holds a super-sized 23-point edge, according to a St. Cloud State University survey). But the latest KSTP/SurveyUSA poll points to a 14  percent erosion in Dayton’s lead among women. If that turns out to be accurate, it’s a huge boost for Emmer.

The “Oberstar Effect”: Voting history indicates that the western Iron Range is still strong DFL territory, but an unexpectedly vigorous and successful Republican challenge to the reign of 18-term DFL incumbent U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar have many thinking the district, which includes the more conservative territory of east-central Minnesota, may be where the national GOP wave plays out most visibly in Minnesota.

Whether or not this spells victory for Oberstar’s GOP challenger, Chip Cravaack, some DFL analysts worry that Oberstar’s fall from grace could hurt the vote totals of other Democrats in a region they expected to win easily. Some DFL insiders say it’s possible the Oberstar campaign’s fumbling response to repeated attacks could hurt several Democratic legislative candidates in the area and bring votes to Emmer despite Dayton’s strong standing in northern Minnesota.

Voter turnout in Bachmann country: Residents in the conservative Sixth Congressional District are more active in the electoral process than the rest of the already highly engaged state. In 2002, the Sixth drew 83.2 percent voter turnout to the state’s 62.8 percent, and in 2006 the area had 72.1 percent voter participation, with the state only reaching 59.5 percent. While there are no solid predictions on voter turnout this year, it’s worth noting that Minnesotans showed up to the early August primary in decade-high numbers. Add that to a year marked by Tea Party takeover rhetoric, which is prevalent in the district, and there could be even more people turning out to vote for conservatives in the Sixth than usual.

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