A polarized Minnesota could see more tight election racesby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesotans have lived through two statewide recounts the past two elections, and political analysts say they should expect more tight races.
Analysts say elections have become so close because Republicans and Democrats share almost the same number of supporters and that both sides are becoming more extreme and more polarized.
University of Minnesota Political Science Professor Larry Jacobs said politics in Minnesota has been reduced to something akin to tribal warfare; most Democrats and Republicans are dug-in so deep they wouldn't even consider supporting a candidate from the other side.
"You've got kind of the Hatfields on one side and the McCoys in another," Jacobs said.
Jacobs said this year's governor's race is a good example of the polarization. He said that Republican Party candidate Tom Emmer was probably the most conservative statewide candidate we've seen nominated on the Republican side in the state's history, or at least since World War II.
"On the Democratic side, Mark Dayton is probably the most liberal," he said. "So we have parties that are presenting voters with pretty much polar opposites, and that's tending to split the state."
With the exception of DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar's lop-sided 2006 victory, the past three statewide elections have shown core Republicans and Democrats in Minnesota are evenly split.
Because winning with a majority has become so difficult, Jacobs said election strategy in Minnesota has become all about ripping the opposition and appealing to the base.
"Both parties have turned to a very similar playbook, which is to demonize the opposition as not only people they have differences with but as a genuine threat to their way of life," Jacobs said. "This is used to bring out the troops and to discourage defections to the other side, and we are seeing very few Democrats who are voting Republican and very few or even less Republicans voting for Democrats and that's probably at a high point."
Carleton College Political science Professor Steven Schier agrees that Minnesotans are sharply divided. He said the political parties and the way they choose candidates are to blame.
"The party activist ranks are a big source of their own problem," Schier said.
Schier said partisan media and blogs help re-enforce entrenched positions on both sides, and leave more moderate voters less willing to support the candidates from either party.
"If you actually look at the attitudes of party activists, in Minnesota we have the Massachusetts Democrats against the South Carolina Republicans," he said. "Both of those messages are perceived by enough voters to be extreme as to disadvantage the parties and keep either one of them from locking up an enduring electoral majority, and so all of that contributes to, I think, the volatility of state politics."
And Schier said Minnesotans should get used to that volatility. He said Republicans and Democrats have a shot at attracting independent voters, but it's a tough sell given their extreme positions. The state's third major party -- the Independence Party -- has not been able to attract enough voters to come close to winning anything statewide -- with the exception of Jesse Ventura's 1998 gubernatorial victory.
DFL Political strategist and public relations consultant Todd Rapp thinks Minnesota Democrats still have a slight advantage over Republicans with one important exception -- when the big political issue is about jobs and the economy, Rapp said Democrats lose their edge.
"In the last 10 years, the debate has been more about fiscal issues than social issues, and I think that's just meant that that gap between Democrats and Republicans in the state has closed," Rapp said.
The next statewide election come in two years, when Amy Klobuchar is expected to seek a second term. In 2006 Klobuchar won handily with more than 58 percent of the vote and support not just from DFLers, but from some independents and Republicans as well.
Political analysts say the GOP will try to frame Klobuchar as a Barack Obama-liberal. Democrats, they say, will likely label whoever ends up opposing her as an extreme right-wing conservative.
- Morning Edition, 12/27/2010, 7:20 a.m.