Analysis: Straw poll lays groundwork for campaigns
ST. PAUL — Straw polls seldom accurately predict who will win an election months away, but Minnesota Republican activists who cast votes during Tuesday night’s precinct caucuses did not vote in vain.
Republicans on Tuesday sent a message that they like state Sen. Julianne Ortman of Chanhassen in the U.S. Senate race. For governor they balanced their votes fairly evenly between suburban and rural candidates, Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville and former Rep. Marty Seifert of Marshall.
“Tonight’s decisive caucus victory represents an exciting end to the first phase of this United States Senate race, and a strong beginning for the next,” Ortman said Tuesday night.
A straw poll is like a camera, taking a snapshot of an instance in time. And only of the people who cast ballots.
“A marathon, not a sprint” is how former House Speaker Kurt Zellers, who finished well back in the governor’s race, described a campaign.
More than 14,000 Republicans voted in the poll. More importantly, they also voted for delegates who will advance to district and county conventions through the late winter and spring. That, far more than the poll, will determine who will be the party’s governor and Senate candidates.
The Marshall politician won a precinct caucus straw poll over Tom Emmer four years ago, 50 percent to 39 percent. But Emmer won the party’s endorsement at the state convention.
The difference between the straw poll and the convention was that they involved different voters.
The 14,000 at precinct caucuses send delegates to county and district conventions. Caucuses and conventions whittle down the number of people making decisions until a couple of thousand head to the state convention.
For Republicans, state convention delegates usually pick the statewide nominees, but this year plenty of candidates say they will take the race to an Aug. 12 primary election regardless of what convention delegates say.
“We had the highest vote total among the candidates who are going to honor the delegates and abide by the endorsement,” Thompson said, trying to drive home traditional Republican political values.
Things change in a primary. No longer can candidates only woo convention delegates, but must reach out to hundreds of thousands of potential voters, most of whom were not involved in caucuses and conventions.
Then there is money. The two richest GOP candidates, Scott Honour for governor and Mike McFadden for Senate, likely will pump much of their own money into their campaigns.
Gov. Mark Dayton successfully used that tactic in his 2010 primary race after deciding in the beginning that he would go to a public vote in a primary.
Given the fact that a primary looms, it may seem like the caucus straw poll vote is meaningless. Not so.
Take, for example, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, a former state lawmaker and one-time unsuccessful attorney general candidate. Many expected him to be competitive with Seifert on Tuesday, and maybe even win the poll. But he finished third with 17 percent.
The Detroit Lakes native needs to learn from the vote and attack his weaknesses if he is to continue as a viable candidate.
The same holds true for Zellers, who received a surprisingly low 8 percent of the governor vote, and St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg, with 10 percent in the Senate race.
“While I was pleased with our showing in many parts of Minnesota, I am more committed than ever to reaching every corner of the state with our message of constitutional government, fiscal responsibility and front porch leadership,” Dahlberg said, hinting that he learned areas where he is weak.
The poll reinforced for Seifert that he needs to work harder in the Twin Cities, which he says he knows about because he lived there during legislative sessions. For Thompson, it showed he is weaker in rural areas, so he may promote his rural northwestern Minnesota roots more.
The bottom line is that losers of Tuesday night’s poll actually could be the winners if they use the vote to learn their weaknesses, and then make adjustments in their campaigns.