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Holed below the waterline?

David Strom//September 10, 2014

Holed below the waterline?

David Strom//September 10, 2014

Boats don’t sink because the hull has a gash above the water.

In fact, some of the most dangerous holes in the hull leave the boat looking completely intact. If you took a snapshot of the ship, you would never know it was sinking.

It is holed below the waterline, where you can’t see the damage.

It is too soon to say definitively, but there are reasons to believe that the DFL ship is holed below the waterline and that their ship may sink before the November elections.

The recent SurveyUSA poll showed some troubling numbers for the DFL, perhaps the most important of which is President Barack Obama’s approval rating: 38 percent of Minnesotans approve of the job he is doing, and a whopping 52 percent disapprove.

Presidential approval in a non-presidential year wouldn’t seem to matter. After all, the president isn’t on the ballot.

Yet presidential approval shapes the electorate — who shows up to vote. If DFLers are in a foul mood, they are less likely to show up to vote than if they are excited. Independents, who really don’t approve of the president, may show up to the polls to express their disapproval.

Another troubling indicator for the DFL is that Minnesotans are now expressing a preference for generic Republican candidates for the state House versus DFLers.

Not only does that make it likely that the DFL will lose the House in the Legislature, it also shows that voters, even before the campaign gets into full swing, aren’t happy with Democrats generally.

Both Dayton and Franken, who until recently have been essentially unscathed and unopposed while campaigning for re-election, are still looking pretty good in the polls.

But topline numbers in polls don’t tell you that much at this point in the race. Tom Emmer, for instance, was 10-15 points behind Dayton at this point in 2010. He lost by less than one-half of 1 percent in a grueling election. And Al Franken is no Amy Klobuchar, who is beloved by all Minnesotans.

The issues are unfavorable for Democrats as well.

According to the SurveyUSA poll, the top issues for voters are 1) taxes, 2) jobs and 3) education.

Of these issues, only the third, education, is traditionally home turf for Democrats. In issues like taxes and jobs, Republicans tend to do better. Rightly or wrongly, voters tend to trust Democrats more on education.

That’s why Alliance for a Better Minnesota is already up with ads attacking the Republican candidate on education: it’s the only card they have to move voters against him. Even when the media fact-checks their claims and finds them wanting, they keep the ads on the air because no other issue that resonates with voters.

The fact that jobs and the economy are still among the top issues puts the lie to one of the major claims that the DFL is trying to make: that the economy is booming and people are feeling good. Clearly, while people are no longer panicked that they are going to lose their job tomorrow, they are still very worried.

In fact, poll after poll show that people are very worried about the future — that things aren’t going to be better in the future than now. Those worries are confirmed by their experience that many college grads are employed, but in jobs that don’t pay very much like stocking shelves in grocery stores.

It’s not easy paying off those student loans on minimum wage, however much it has been raised.

The rest of the issues aren’t good for DFLers: Taxes are a losing issue; MNsure is a losing issue; and the Senate office building is a loser.

Knowing all this, we can predict that the major thrust of Dayton’s campaign and his allies will be to try to draw a sharp contrast on education issues, because little else about his record resonates with voters.

And, of course, use the same strategy as they did in 2010: viciously attack the Republican as an extremist out of touch with Minnesotans.

That might be enough, of course, because Dayton is starting the campaign ahead as an incumbent. According to SurveyUSA he has a 9 point lead against his opponent, who is still not well-known.

But it just as easily could be insufficient in this election year. The prevailing winds are bad for Democrats, and their ship is holed below the waterline. Unless President Obama turns his approval ratings around, Democrats could be in deep trouble — along the lines of the Minnesota Massacre in 1978.

David Strom is a senior policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment.  

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