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Post-election observations

by Eric Ferguson on November 6, 2014 · 5 comments

With the voting done in 2014, let’s talk about 2016. Kidding! Stop, don’t go away! In fact, I’ll give you this handy link to Minnesota election results, but don’t leave yet.
 
The following thoughts about 2014 are more or less in the order in which they came to mind, though I tried to seize opportunities for coherency.
 
Starting with admittedly a repeat of my comment on Dan Burns’ post on women voting, assuming my walk lists of voters were the drop-off Democrats, it’s a bit disturbing those lists were heavy with younger women, meaning under 40. They arguably lost the most when Republicans did so well in 2010, between Republican governors and legislatures repealing equal pay laws, closing women’s clinics to restrict abortion access (and restricting access to health services in general thereby), photo ID laws (women’s birth certificates get rejected if they changed their names when they married), and blocking minimum wage increases which hurts women much more than men. Why aren’t younger women the most motivated to turn out?
 
Despite the wailing and media hysteria, if you didn’t roughly predict the results of the 2014 midterms once the results of the 2012 election were in, you have much to learn about US politics. We’re the presidential party in a midterm — Tuesday was always going to be bad. I expected we would net a governor or two, instead of a net loss of I think it will turn out to be two. But losses in Congress, albeit worse than they needed to be, no surprise. Looks like losses were small compared to 2010 in state legislatures. Not that we couldn’t have mitigated the losses without some bad decisions — yes, that’s a prelude to bringing up things I’m ticked about, and in my own defense, all things I raised before the campaign was over. We’ll get there shortly. Some good news, besides a good night for Democrats in Minnesota whatever happened elsewhere, is the GOP Senate majority is likely short-lived. Their odds of holding on in 2016 are worse than ours this year, for the same math problems: whether it’s a presidential year, who defends how many seats, and which states have elections.
 
Weirdly, given how the elections turned out, Democrats nearly ran the table on ballot measures. Unlike 2012, they seem not to have had coattails.
 
No one wants to believe the polls when they predict bad news, but for Senate and governor races, following them meant you weren’t surprised. Disappointed, but at least you knew it would be a generally bad night. Not so much for the US House, which I attribute to few polls and small sample sizes — so I was pleasantly surprised by CD8, since the last poll showed Stewart Mills with a strong lead, plus a Green candidate taking a few percent. Point being, better to accept the polls are roughly right and deal with reality. At least no one on the Democratic side went so far as to get into “unskewing”, so we have that going for us.
 
Apartment buildings folks, come on. I’m not naming sources or candidates, because no one knew in these conversations I might be blogging about it later on. Trying to do better at contacting people who live in apartments, or “multi-unit buildings” to not exclude residents of condominiums, is something we’ve worked on in the SD I chair, and the Keith Ellison campaign developed methods of doorknocking in apartments over the last couple elections. Ellison is safe, so the main beneficiaries are on the rest of the ballot, but lots of candidates and campaigns still want to bypass multi-unit buildings. The reasons why aren’t important. What’s important is we’re passing up voters Republicans also don’t contact, or, to be more positive, where we focus on multi-unit buildings, we’re contacting people Republicans ignore. Besides, whatever fudge factors there are, can anyone claim we solved the drop-off Democrat problem? Yet turfs are still cut to steer away from multi-unit buildings.
 

The DFL has to reconsider our targeting for the ground game, at least for the GOTV part. We’re stuck in the past. We pick certain precincts we decide are more important, and maybe that made sense where all we knew was which precincts had more Democrats or more turnout. There are still places where information is sketchy and it makes sense to focus there, or knock every door. However, what we somehow do is work the same precincts election after election, and my impression is independent groups do too, and people in those precincts are getting sick of it. I can recognize those neighborhoods quickly because there is a big difference not just in how people react when they open the door and see someone with a clipboard, but in the frequency of the “no soliciting” signs. Some blocks have many while some have none. Yes, I know canvassing isn’t the same as soliciting, but people who don’t canvass don’t know that. And they do mean us. It was rare late in the campaign for me to have a turf that hadn’t recently been doorknocked, generally the same people, and we’re just irritating people. A look at turnout compared to 2010 suggests we’re driving up sales of “no soliciting” signs, but not turnout, admitting the possibility the drop-off would have been even worse. The lesson to be learned is precincts don’t matter. Voters do. We usually have enough data to know where our likely supporters are, so it’s nuts to hit the same places every time. Where we don’t have that data, we need to find time to improve the data. I certainly intend to advocate in 2016 for focusing on areas and voters where our data is thin.
 
It makes sense to focus on college campuses when trying to reach out to younger voters, since that’s where we find concentrations of them, but I wonder if there’s any data on turnout differences between college students and other young adults. Lots of young adults don’t attend college, and many have left college but are still in the 18-29 age group. Can those in college really be lumped in with all young adults? Maybe this is why young adult turnout seems to have been lousy as usual.
 
As much as we worry about candidate selection and campaign mechanics, the big driver of turnout is voters seeing they have a stake in the election. I had the impression the general public never tuned in this year. Compare that to Scotland which had 86% turnout despite lowering the voting age to 16. Not coincidentally, they were voting on independence, so that’s what happens to turnout when voters think it matters. Otherwise, British media has some of the same laments over low turnout that we do. Maybe messaging has to go beyond “we have a good record”, which was the Democratic message this year, and “I agree with you on some issues”, and has to communicate to the voter that they have a stake in the outcome. But I bet a lot of candidates tried to do just that, so it clearly isn’t easy.

 
Since Gov. Mark Dayton has said 2014 was his last attempt at elective office win or lose, governor is already an open seat in 2018. Admit it: you’re now thinking about prospective candidates. If Rebecca Otto seeks and gets the nomination, she must remember to thank Matt Entenza. I have no knowledge and make no prediction regarding her interest.
 
Minnesota is becoming more like the rest of the country; purple to red and red to purple. What that means is Minnesota’s regional divisions have long been the DFL holds the central cities, the MNGOP holds the suburbs, and the rural areas are where the parties compete. Ironically, given Republicans ran on rural resentment this year, this arrangement has given the rural areas outsized influence. Most of the rest of the country reverses the latter two; rural areas are red, and suburbs are where the parties compete. Minnesota has seen the inner tier of suburbs mostly turn blue, the exurbs are still red, and the second and third tiers are the swing part of the state. So guess which part of the state both parties will see a need to cater to if they want legislative majorities? To go off on a tangent, this regional breakdown was another way Wisconsin was a twin of Minnesota, and they’re nearly the lone holdout now. The Wisdems compete fairly well in rural areas, but you don’t have to step terribly far outside the Milwaukee city limits to be in deep red territory. Imagine Richfield and South St. Paul being conservative, and you get the idea. I suspect what’s gone wrong in Wisconsin is the rural areas are making their purple to red move, but the suburbs haven’t started purpling. Being a former Wisconsin resident, that sounds worth digging into a some point.
 
A silver lining to the reelection of so many Republican governors is most governors don’t seek third terms, so there will be open seats in 2018, which is when we elect the governors who will preside over the next redistricting. Our only serious hope of winning back the US House and most state legislatures is to elect Democratic governors who can block gerrymandering, like Mark Dayton did here.
 
I’m going to disagree with Greg Laden on something he said in his post, Harry Potter and the 2014 Election, “During the 2014 election, and this has happened before, many Democrats ran against their leader, President Obama. A Republican strategy would have been different. Keep the message clear; our leader is the greatest ever and we are all on the same page.” My observation is both parties run from their president in midterms. The non-presidential party delights in pointing out how candidates of the president’s party don’t want to be seen with him. This avoidance strategy fails every time, for both parties, but neither ever learns. Some candidates survive, like our own Colin Peterson in CD7 ran against Obama and hung on, so maybe the next candidates get their “wisdom” from the survivors, whereas the losers actually have more to teach. Where this gets tragic in Minnesota is our one loss was a narrow House majority turned into a narrow minority, with all but one lost seat being rural. Based on what I saw and heard, those candidates largely ran on their own, avoiding the rest of the DFL ticket. Al Franken picked up a bunch of rural counties he lost in 2008. Those newly-Franken counties frequently overlap HDs we lost. Amy Klobuchar did even better in 2012, yet I thought we underperformed in legislative races. So I plead with the legislative caucus campaign strategists — coattails are good. Grab on. Campaign as a ticket.
 
Should the DFL give party endorsements in non-partisan races? Obviously that question came up in context of the hugely expensive and divisive school board election in Minneapolis, but what about other non-partisan elections? As I thought about this, it looks too complex for a paragraph. This might be the paragraph most likely to become a stand-alone post, but to share where my thinking is now, I’m dividing non-partisan races into those that are policy-making, like school board or mayor, and those that aren’t, like judicial elections. I’m thinking policy-making is a guideline to where non-partisan endorsements are appropriate.
 
Why did Steve Simon barely win when he’s perhaps the most qualified non-incumbent to ever run for secretary of state, whereas his opponent could elucidate upon the qualities of different brands of aluminum foil as hat material? He underperformed the rest of the ticket while Dan Severson overperformed, and this was the one race where a third party nearly hit 5%, the IP candidate just missing. The possibilities I come up with are all aspects of low name recognition. Constitutional officers are usually unknown, but incumbency greatly helps. Lori Swanson and Rebecca Otto, both of whom cruised, had incumbency and relatively high name recognition compared to Simon, who was seeking an open seat. Being an open seat meant the Republicans tried here, but they seemed to write off Scott Newman and Randy Gilbertson early. There’s also this irrational behavior of some voters in which they pick a candidate at random when they don’t recognize the names. I can’t fathom why anyone does that, but enough people admitted to it that I have to recognize that they do. It’s why Simon had a surprisingly narrow primary win over two perennial candidates. So besides the Republicans making a greater effort, Simon was up against people voting at random. I also suspect some ticket splitters, finding themselves voting straight DFL, picked SOS to vote for a Republican. That’s just a weird thing some ticket splitters do. That might explain some votes for Republicans in legislative races too: they voted for several Democrats, so picked some Republicans where they didn’t know the candidates, and few people know their state legislators. At least Simon’s incumbency problem is now solved.
 
Speaking of ticket splitters and swing voters, the benefit of an election loss is it forces rational people to challenge their assumptions. One assumption to challenge is that voters in swing districts are swing voters. They might be, but maybe they’re straight-ticket voters evenly balanced between both parties.
 
It seemed more DFL candidates had lit drops this year. Why? We already have the research that tells us lit drops accomplish little compared to doorknocking. The only reason for dropping a lit piece during a doorknock is we already took the trouble to walk up to the voter’s door and wait for an answer to our knock, so might as well leave something. However, the conversation is the important part. We have the data. Use it.
 
Another assumption I no longer assume: you have to campaign differently in safe districts than in swing districts. Given our legislative losses two midterms in a row — and I thought we should have bigger majorities in 2012 — maybe we shouldn’t just throw out what works in safe districts. If we were winning swing seats but losing statewide, that assumption would still be questionable, but just the other way. Maybe we should run on tickets instead of each candidate for himself.
 
Maybe we should rethink guessing at the likely swing districts and just focusing on those. At the risk of winding up in the same place, what if we look at areas where the macro environment and demographics say we should be winning, but we’re not? That might merely pick the low hanging fruit, but you do have to pick the low hanging fruit if you want to eat.
 
Eight MNGOP State House candidates had no opponent. Only one DFLer enjoyed that status (in a swingy area, oddly enough, unless Rochester has gone blue). Those might be safe GOP districts, but you can’t beat someone with no one. At least a name on the ballot forces the candidates to give some attention to their own districts instead of just helping elsewhere, and maybe the opponent exposes some weaknesses, like didn’t happen to Jeff Johnson in 2012 when he was reelected unopposed. And who knows, maybe you get the candidate who takes a bribe on video. Think about Kurt Daudt’s gun problem, yet he had no opponent to take advantage.
 
Finally, can we agree to stop saying “All politics is local.”? I doubt it was ever true, but it has been disproven enough times that I don’t know why anyone still believes it. I’m not saying local politics means nothing, but how many times does the macro environment have to smack us on the head before we figure it out?
 
Comments
 
From Tony Yarusso: “Apartment buildings folks”: In addition to multi-unit buildings, pay attention also to neighborhoods that others tend to ignore. In our area, that means manufactured home parks – lots of residents in those said nobody had ever bothered to talk to them before.
 
“reconsider our targeting for the ground game”: Knock. Every. Door. Sure, if you’re just doing GOTV in Minneapolis, use whatever list you want, but if you’re trying to win a swing district you need to talk to everyone – you’ll be surprised who might be willing to vote for you. Peter Fischer had people say they were Republicans, but liked what he was doing on the White Bear Lake water level issue. Barb Yarusso likewise had someone say they were a conservative, but were making one exception for her. John Marty has had people tell him (pre-redistricting, when he had a moderate district) that they disagree with all of his policy positions, but they’ll still vote for him because at least they know he’s being honest with them about where he stands. None of those people are going to show up on “targeted” lists, but their votes still count the same. Also, having looked at what info the VAN has about people I know, a lot of that information is old and/or terrible. We rely on it way too much.
 
“Can those in college really be lumped in with all young adults?”: I’m inclined to say no, but have no actual data to back it up. I’m 28, working full-time in a white-collar career, own a house, and am no longer on my parents’ health insurance. My politics may be the same, but my concerns and motivations are different than they were 6 years ago.
 
“Campaign as a ticket.”: This statement on its own is fine, but be careful about morphing it into something else, with two specific points. First, while you can campaign on the whole ticket, you still have to remember that individual districts have both individual concerns and individual styles – that means you can’t campaign the same way everywhere even if you’re campaigning for the same people. Second, limit the canvassing. I cringe every time some party person hands me a script that wants me to ask for an ID about every freaking race on the ballot. There’s no way I’d put up with that as a voter, so I certainly can’t expect the people I’m talking to to indulge that idiocy.
 
“Should the DFL give party endorsements in non-partisan races?”: Nope. People involved with the party can and should give their personal endorsements, but it shouldn’t come from the party as an organization.
 
“One assumption to challenge is that voters in swing districts are swing voters.”: I can’t speak to everywhere, but here (second- and third-tier northeast suburbs) many are swing voters. In 2012 I did some analysis of how many votes the best-performing DFLer and best-performing Republican and worst-performing DFLer and worst-performing Republican had received in the last several elections, and the conclusion was that a little over half of the voters were splitting their ticket each year, and changing how year-to-year.
 
Lastly, somebody tell the folks in charge at the state party to knock it off with all the negative lit. It’s hurting our candidates, big-time, but we’re not legally allowed to ask them to stop during the election because of campaign finance coordination rules.
 

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