What we learned from the Minnesota primary?

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Far less than you think. Journalists and politicos want to write the big story and find trends. If there is a special election in one race they see in it a harbinger of a trend. Think of Eric Cantor losing to a Tea Party candidate and how from one race everyone is saying that the immigration issue did him in and therefore Republicans will refuse to compromise on this topic. Maybe it was immigration that cost him his seat, or maybe it was that he lost track with his constituents or simply was complacent in his campaigning. This is what did Jim Oberstar in.

My point is that there are two competing trends in thinking about politics. One is the classic Tip O’Neill line that all politics is local. The other is the belief that all politics is now being nationalized. Evidence exists for both propositions and there are serious questions also whether one can generalize from one event to seeing a trend.

Minnesota’s August 12, primary invites this type of speculation. By now the received wisdom is that endorsements matter and that the turnout was bad. There is some truth to both but more needs to be said.

First it appears that all the party endorsed or party favored candidates won– Johnson, McFadden, Otto, Kahn, and Loon just to mention a few. After what appeared to be a nearly generation-long repudiation of convention endorsements, they seem to have mattered this time and perhaps it is a sign of a trend. Yes they mattered this time but a trend is not something one can leap to yet. This primary the endorsements mattered and parties looked strong because the turnout was so bad. The two are related and when we think about it, the parties do not look that strong.

One of the classic functions of political parties is voter mobilization and get out the vote. Strong parties are generally associated with vigorous voter turnout. But in this primary turnout was 12.8%, more or less confirming a long-term decrease in turnout dating back 30 years in Minnesota when in 1982 31% showed up on primary day. Since then the number of individuals identifying themselves as a member of a political party has decreased, thereby making it harder for parties to mobilize as many people as before. Many of those people are also younger voters or Millennials who are less likely to identify with the two major parties compared to the past. They are also individuals harder to reach by more traditional methods of communication (mail or phone) and instead need to contacted by alternative or social media. Finally, unlike 30 years ago, third parties such as PACS are more powerful today and they along with interest groups perform many of the functions that parties used to perform.

My point is simple. Low turnout and the appearance of party endorsements as mattering last Tuesday went hand-in-hand. Because the parties (and the candidates) did such a bad job reaching and mobilizing voters the turnout was so bad. With turnout so bad we saw young people stay away from the polls and also those who did show up were the hardcore partisans–those whom the endorsement process mattered most to. Come November when turnout is at about 54% things will look different. Parties and the candidates will be competing more with third party groups (PACS, legislative caucuses, and independent expenditures) for influence and they may or may not look as relevant as they did in this primary.

Now of course there are other reasons why turnout was bad. As I pointed out four years ago in a study other states that moved from a post to pre Labor Day August primary demonstrated lower turnout. Four years ago MN had a slight bump in turnout (as did other states with their first August primary) but the longer term trend is for lower turnout. Few people are thinking of politics n Minnesota except for the hardcore politicos. Most Minnesotans barely think about elections until the state fair, or after Labor Day when school starts. Picking an August primary date as opposed to an early one such as June favors incumbents or party endorsed candidates by holding an election when many people are not thinking about voting. June would be better for an primary but incumbents did not want it because of how close it came to the end or the legislative session (assuming it ends on time) and it would hurt their ability to fund raise and campaign.

A couple of other thoughts about Tuesday. This was the first with new excuses early voting. Many thought this would increase turnout. It did not for two reasons. One, few people knew about the change in the law. Second, the evidence is mixed regarding whether early voting really increases turnout or simply makes voting more convenient for those who do vote. Additionally, it is not clear that many candidates knew how to use early voting to their benefit. I remember talking to Scott Honour at one point and he thought he would win because he had the most money and would use it to get people to early vote. I asked him how he was taking advantage of early voting and he said he had a link on his web site for people to download an absentee ballot application. This is hardly a good use of early voting. I heard of similar other candidates operating with similar naive strategies.

Finally, one other argument I had emerging out of this election is that money did not matter–Entenza and Honour lost. Yes they did but in part because they did not use their money effectively and also because there is something that one needs to consider–they were not quality candidates. Both faced many liabilities that money just could not overcome.

So what do we learn from the August 12 primary? Maybe far less and far different from what the received wisdom is saying.