Friday, December 29, 2006

Am I Vote for Bush?

Was It Really Just An Anti-Bush Vote?

I'm still crunching election numbers, and I hope to post substantive analysis regarding emerging trends from the last three elections. So, keep me in your blog reader or check back every few days.

I've read many articles from local and state publications. Partisans and pundits all seem to say the same thing: the election was a DFL tidal wave spurred by anti-Bush and anti-war sentiment. Admittedly, the DFL succeeded in part because of general anti-Republican-ness. But to attribute the DFL's 25 legislative and 2 constitutional office gains to that is too simplistic.

The biggest proof, in my mind, that it was more than anti-Republican sentiment can be found at the National Conference of State Legislature website. According to the NCSL, Democrats picked up a combined 321 seats in state legislatures, or an average net gain per state of 6.5. According to my crude math, 95 of those came in New Hampshire, where its House has an obscene 400 members. Removing these 95 gains as an outlier from the overall number, Democrats picked up 226 seats in 48 states, or 4.7 per state. (Nebraska's unicameral legislature is nonpartisan.) Minnesota accounted for 11% of Democratic pickups in these 48 states; the next closest state, Maine, accounted for only 6% (14 pickups).

Since I like numbers, I'll make more comparisons to the NCSL's state election data. Take Ohio, where state Republicans had a litany of problems. Democrats picked up only 8 seats in the state legislature. Or take Pennsylvania, where Democrats defeated Sen. Rick Santorum and 4 Republican incumbents in Congressional races (04, 07, 08, and 10) but managed only 7 pickups in the state legislature (out of 250). Or Virginia, which is allegedly drifting towards Democrats. There, Democrats made 0 gains in the state legislature, and Republicans actually picked up a House seat held by an independent. In blue New York, Democrats picked up only 2 seats, and Republicans still hold a six-seat majority in the state Senate. In bluer California, it was a wash - Democrats picked up only one seat in the state House (from an independent) but lost a seat in the state Senate. Even in Texas and Idaho, two Republican strongholds, Democrats were able to pick up 5 and 6 seats.

In these states, as in most, Democrats made small gains at the state level. So, if the nationwide tsunami was supposedly because of anti-Bush and anti-war fervor, as everyone says, why did Minnesota see gains of five times the national average? Put another way, why was the "we're sick of Republicans" feeling so much more prominent here?

I don't have a well-supported answer; I can only offer theories. But I think this shows that more than being anti-Republican, Minnesota in 2006 was pro-DFL. And I think Steve Sviggum, appearing on Almanac last Friday, unknowingly hit the nail on the head. The Friday before the election, the President's Minnesota approval number was 29%. Sviggum said that he knew that number would be bad for state Republicans, but he continued to put his best "politics is local" spin on things. He was right on the former; Bush's 29% approval didn't help. But he was also right on the latter - politics is local. Unfortunately for the state GOP, the DFL won the local politics battle.

I think, in part, it was anti-Bush and anti-war. But it also marked a possible transition from purple to blue. Look at the state legislature prior to the 1994 election. At the beginning of that session (see Jan. 11, 1994), the DFL held an 85-49 majority in the House. In the Senate, it held a 45-22 majority. These numbers are eerily similar to the current DFL majorities. And look at victories by Rebecca Otto and Mark Ritchie. It has been almost 30 years since an incumbent, non-gubernatorial constitutional officer was defeated. (Arne Carlson beat Robert Mattson.)

I think, too, that the DFL beat Republicans on the ground. The more excited Democratic base certainly played a role in this, but City Pages points out the work done by TakeAction Minnesota. While the GOP was focusing its efforts on getting out its base, groups like TakeAction were working to expand the DFL base. And given that the GOP and DFL bases are pretty close in terms of size, taking the middle - which some have said split 2-to-1 for the DFL - proved key. TakeAction's results speak loudly: of the 15 legislative races it targeted, 14 of its candidates (probably all DFLers) won.

Local uniqueness was also a part. I would guess that part of Dan Skogen's surpise win over Sen. Cal Larson can likely be attributed to Skogen's radio-enhanced name recognition. (He has been on the radio as a sports director for 24 years.) Part of John Doll's surprise victory over Sen. Bill Belanger can probably be linked to the age differential. (Belanger is 78; Doll is 45.) Bob Collins notes that education forces contributed to the DFL sweep in Woodbury. (I don't doubt him.) And I think DFLers just had better candidates in some races (like 1A, where DFLer Dave Olin was county attorney for 32 years, and 12A, where John Ward is a local version of Tim Walz), while GOP hopes that certain candidates were "dream" candidates against vulnerable DFLers (Doug Oman in 1B and Mike Bredeck in 20A) did not pan out.

Lastly - and as my least-supported theory - Minnesotans completed their 2004 rejection of the strong-line conservative philosophy of shrinking government. Ignore the debate over which philosophy is better. Strong, fiscal conservatives like Phil "Dr. No" Krinkie, Tim Wilkin, and Karen Klinzing lost. The DFL has picked up 31 House seats since the election of 2002, which was successfully framed as "less government" by Republicans. And look around. The public debate is not about the size of government. Instead, it is about investment: education, transportation, health care. These are the issues that are dominating state politics. And when the debate centers on investing in these items, as opposed to how these areas are fiscal blackholes, the DFL wins. Republicans took the 2002 election as a mandate to shrink government as much as possible. But smaller government is not synonymous with effective government. Right now, at least, Minnesotans want effective government.

So, I don't think the election was only about President Bush and Iraq. There are other, more important underlying lessons. At the same time, the DFL is now faced with having to (1) implement an actual plan for Minnesota, (2) hold together a large but diverse majority in both chambers, and (3) not overstep the reason Minnesotas gave them the reins in the legislature. Republicans who are still depressed should take a look back at those historical numbers in the House and Senate, especially the years following the DFL's large majorities. If the historical trend continues, the DFL's majorities have no where to go but down.