Monday, October 11, 2004

Minnesota Election 2004 - Strategic Musings

Apologies for the blogging delay. What a foul mood I've been in today. One of those nasty pointless bad moods that grasps for any justification it can find, but really seems to exist purely for its own sake. It came on unbidden last night, and still lingers. Makes my BS-tolerance level dangerously low.

You'd think good screeds come from such a mood. But you'd be wrong. In this mood, screeds tend to constantly veer off-course, delightedly tearing into any targets of opportunity which they encounter. They have no focus, just wandering aggression.

This must be what Bush-haters feel like.

Anyway, out of this morass of poisoned sentiment, I did come across something interesting today. It was a piece Vodkapundit linked to earlier, from The Horserace Blog:
On the ground in Minnesota...

The analysis interestingly ignores the polls, and looks to new voter registration patterns to see which party is improving their chances. It turns out counties which voted for Bush in 2000 seem to be showing the largest success in registering new voters, with the most strongly pro-Bush counties showing the most gain of all. Interesting stuff.

But a couple of important points need to be made. First, Minnesota allows registering at the polling place on election day. Despite being terribly vulnerable to fraud, this practice also allows popular trends to drift beneath the radar of this sort of analysis; the classic example being the election of Jesse Ventura as governor in 1998.

A little digression to make a related point about that very election. I heard an interesting, wonkish interview with failed Republican gubernatorial candidate (and current U. S. Senator) Norm Coleman a few weeks after that election was over. Coleman was being quizzed about how Ventura was able to defeat the major party candidates, including himself. Coleman admitted that his strategy entirely ignored Ventura, once his advisors had analyzed that the effect would not harm him more than his DFL (for you out-of-Minnesota types, that's Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party, the local label for Minnesota's Democratic Party) opponent. That's what allowed Ventura to sneak up and get the win - the major parties literally ignored him.

There was another point that was largely ignored at the time, because everyone was babbling about how the old two party system was now gone, and the rulebook had to be rewritten, and the potential for national significance, and blah-blah-blah. The point was that Coleman had devised a strategy to beat the DFL in a statewide race in a way the DFL didn't see coming (nor did their fan-club at the Star Tribune). The DFL was confident in a victory in that election, and came in a distant third; the part about being soundly defeated by Coleman as well as Ventura is generally forgotten. Coleman's strategy - unwise as it was for ignoring the eventual winner - did everything it was supposed to against the only candidate it was meant to defeat. And what was the strategy? It was about increasing focus on strongly Republican counties outside the Twin Cities metro area. A new "ground game" breaking from the prior Republican mold.

Now cast this election in that perspective. There is no serious third-party darkhorse in the race. There are several candidates from tiny, marginal parties who may split as much as five percent of the vote between them in the end. The strongest of the bunch is likely to be Ralph Nader, so its unlikely this worries the Republicans as much as the Democrats. The race seems to be close, as it was last time. So where should we look for strategic differences that might catch the analysts off-guard? How about looking at the same thing Coleman used to sneak past Skip Humphrey in '98, and handily defeat Mondale for the Senate in '02? After pretty much ignoring Minnesota in 2000 (and darn near carrying the state anyway), this election we're seeing the Bush campaign intensely focusing on counties where Republican support is strong. That alone will make a difference from 2000, registration numbers aside.

The other important point to make regarding the importance of pre-registration is also related to turnout. Sure you can register at the polling place on election day. But the reason both campaigns are putting so much effort into registration here is that you are far more likely to show up at the polls if you are already registered. The Jesse Ventura effect, in which untold hordes of unregistered voters showed up and voted on election day, has not repeated afterward.

In addition, the GOP is not ignoring getting people to the polls on election day, pre-registered or not. They are planning an unprecedented (for Republicans anyway) final 72 hour effort to turn out their vote (Scott, from Pinkmonkeybird, mentions it here, with some other insights into the operations on the ground). This is another significant difference between the way the party ran against Gore in this state four years ago.

I'm not ready to say any of this is conclusive, but it certainly is interesting to me. Most analysts are strongly relying on patterns from 2000 for making their estimates about the race. In my opinion the Republican strategy here far superior this time around, and that may catch a lot of people by surprise on November 3rd.

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