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Commentary: Sources of surprise in the coming elections

Editor’s note: Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. This column does not necessarily reflect the views of Minnesota Lawyer.

What will shape the outcome of the 2018 elections nationally and in Minnesota? Fortunately, an experienced political hand has provided five keys to their outcome. But here’s the rub: Their impact on the outcome is quite unpredictable.

The veteran analysis comes from Mark Penn, pollster to President Clinton from 1995 to 2000 and chief strategist for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. His new book, “Microtrends Squared,” identifies all manner of small but important trends in America’s economy, society and politics that are shaping the nation’s future.

His first electoral key concerns how “old economy voters” cast their ballots this November. Penn describes them as “hardworking, family and religion oriented people who have had their ears boxed by globalization and technology.” These are formerly Democratic voters who opted for Trump, allowing him to narrowly prevail in the crucial electoral college states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Where are they in Minnesota? Largely in depopulating rural towns and particularly in the 8th Congressional District, location of a booming mining industry in previous decades. Their Trump support has made Minnesota’s 8th District one of the most likely congressional districts for the GOP to add to their ranks in 2018.

A polar opposite group is composed of Penn’s “impressionable elites” heavily populated in the Twin Cities. Penn describes them as those who “trust more the chorus conducted by the media and think tanks” and who do not “see what is happening right before their eyes right here in America.” Nationally, GOP and Democratic beltway denizens are central members of this elite. Progressive and conservative Twin Cities activists populate their ranks in Minnesota. In both parties, their ideological enthusiasms don’t resonate with most old economy voters.

A third group identified by Penn are “militant dreamers.” Described by Penn as “those who are here illegally without proper documentation,” he asserts they may be the “most powerful force in the next presidential election.”

They may also loom large in 2018 balloting as well. The major parties divide on immigration policy both nationally and in Minnesota. Pro-immigrant attitudes are more pronounced in metropolitan areas where diversity is strongest. That’s true both nationally and in the state. Voters in Minneapolis and St. Paul tend to view the controversy differently than voters in Redwood Falls and Warroad.

Trump’s successful appeal for immigration restrictions gained a receptive audience among many old economy voters but has also stimulated new activism among militant dreamers. That political division will shape the 2018 election results nationally and in Minnesota.

Another key group of swing voters are Penn’s “happy pessimists.” Though living standards are at an all-time high and the national and state economies are booming, these voters have a negative view of national conditions. “They believe the worst about American and are fueling a downward spiral of pessimism increasingly out of sync with the overall statistics of the country and even their assessments of their own lives.” Discontented citizens are volatile voters.

Will they agree with Trump’s contentious “outsider” approach to politics, vote against him and his “status quo” or simply sit out the 2018 elections? Given so many highly competitive races nationally and in Minnesota this year, the electoral verdict of this discontented group could dictate many ballot outcomes.

Then there are the “couch potato voters” who eschewed politics until Trump excited them, spurring them to vote in 2016. Penn argues the largest group of such voters “are lower-educated white male voters, precisely the voters who could be energized by a populist campaign.”

Well, that happened in 2016. But midterm elections usually have turnouts about 25 percent below that of presidential elections and couch potato voters always have weak motivation to visit the polls. Trump’s political future may well depend on his ability to get them to vote this November. If he accomplishes this, it will be an unusual and historic achievement.

Yet it’s been done before in Minnesota. Jesse Ventura mobilized lots of couch potatoes to go vote for him in the midterm election of 1998 and they placed him in the governor’s chair. It could happen here, but will it happen nationwide? Skepticism is in order about that.

The scenario Penn sketches for the nation’s political future hinges on the behavior of these five groups – and the five will shape national and Minnesota elections this year.

Impressionable elites dominate the leadership of both major parties. Disgruntled old economy voters and happy pessimists are important, volatile voter groups. A rising political division involves supporters and opponents of rising militant dreamers. And will those couch potatoes arise and go the polls again?

These five elements make state and national electoral outcomes in 2018 highly uncertain. So big surprises may again be in store – as they were in 2016.

Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

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