Lessons from primary day (Five by 8: 8/11/10)

I’ll suspend the usual collection of news items today for five thoughts about Primary Day over black coffee

(1) UNITY, SCHMUNITY

People who vote on Primary Day in August are more likely to be the most engaged, often activist party members. That’s what makes Sen. Mark Dayton’s win over DFL-endorsed Margaret Anderson Kelliher more shocking. There are plenty of campaigns and political careers in tatters today, but the value of a DFL endorsement is — at least for now — on the trash heap of history. And someone’s going to pay. Political parties hate people who undermine the power of political parties. And both Dayton and Matt Entenza flipped off the party machine by undermining the endorsee. If you’re a fan of Ultimate Fighting, you want a seat at the next DFL Central Committee meeting.

Entenza and his key party allies will likely be persona non grata in the party, at least for awhile. Entenza has two failed statewide races in a row on his resume, so it may not matter politically.

Mark Dayton gets to fight another day but grudges die hard in these circles and if he loses to Tom Emmer in November, a few party activists will have a difficult time deciding whether they should be happy or sad about that.

The story line will be that Kelliher couldn’t defeat the money and name recognition of Dayton, but that doesn’t explain how Entenza was able to draw almost half the votes that both Dayton and Kelliher were able to. Entenza had cash, but was never a serious threat to either Dayton or Kelliher. Still, Kelliher could’ve used those votes.

From a campaign point of view, Kelliher waited too late in the game — Sunday night — to get feisty. But even then, she tried to rewrite legislative history. What we learned yesterday was people who vote in a DFL primary know a legislative process that doesn’t work when they see it.

Kelliher tried to turn one override victory — the gas tax — into an example of how she can build coalitions. But it was a weak argument and Minnesota knew it. Gov. Tim Pawlenty, armed with a Republican caucus that stayed together, schooled DFLers on how to make a party in power irrelevant and grind things to a halt. The DFL was mostly unwilling — or unable — to “go nuclear” in any showdown with Pawlenty’s forces. That’s not something you run on.

Instead she used “code” to call attention to a significant weakness in Dayton: He’s kind of goofy. When she noted that “she doesn’t quit” on Sunday night, what she meant was “Dayton does.” She should have come right out and said it. Dayton’s closing of his U.S. Senate office in October 2004 because of “terrorism concerns” was weird. At the same time, a national magazine named him the worst U.S. senator. How do you run a campaign against him and not use that?

Kelliher took one for the team in refusing to come right out and say what the Republicans will most assuredly say about Dayton between now and November. She had to protect a possible DFL challenge to the Republicans by not giving the Republicans ammunition to use. But the GOP already had it and Kelliher needlessly, if admirably, pulled her punches. In 2010, you don’t win elections by pulling punches.

Dayton acknowledged his personal problems and the GOP and its allies will build an entire campaign around them, especially now that anti-Emmer forces have rolled out this bruiser:

There was to be a unity news conference this morning at which time all the DFL candidates would join hands. It looks like that’s off. What happens through the day today will determine whether the DFL does what the DFL occasionally does best: self-destruct.

(2) PRIMARY POLLING STINKS

Let’s face it: We can’t help ourselves. Polls are fun for wonks. It’s true, they’re an indicator, not a predictor, so no one can come out and say the polls were wrong. But we can say that in our glee to talk about them, we failed to ignore the obvious: They were highly flawed.

The turnout yesterday was pathetic by any definition. But it’s highly, highly unlikely that 9 out of 10 DFLers contacted by polling firms and organizations refused to take part in the survey because they didn’t intend to vote.

The most-likely to vote are also the most informed and engaged. The least-likely to vote are not. We might complain about telemarketing calls, but when the pollster calls, we’re not likely to say our response doesn’t matter. So given a choice of names, and a less-than-scholarly knowledge of a campaign few are paying attention to, we’re more likely to name the person we’ve heard of before. In this case: Mark Dayton.

(3) THE MOST IMPORTANT STAFF MEMBER

The most important person on a politician’s staff (after the person who answers the phone and the chief of staff) may be the person whose job it is to write apologies. Sen. Satveer Chaudhary could’ve used one. Chaudhary got smoked in his re-election bid after the DFL pulled its endorsement. His latest ethical indiscretion was pushing a law specific to a lake on which he had a summer place.

Chaudhary never seemed to understand the perception problem he had, and it’s difficult to figure whether people held the “crime” against him or his reaction to the crime, both of which suggested pretty poor political judgment.

In an interview with MPR’s Tom Scheck, Chaudhary apologized for his actions but couldn’t bring himself to stop there. “There is a small, and I emphasize small, handful of people who resent that I hunt and fish as much as I do,” Chaudhary said. “And when you boil it all down, that’s what you come up with.”

Uh huh.

The only person who looks worse in the affair was Sen. Larry Pogemiller, who campaigned for Chaudhary a week or so ago (update: see comments) . Pogemiller, who has the luxury of a safe seat, also was in the “what’s the big deal?” camp. As the Senate Majority Leader, Pogemiller never seemed all that interested in finding out .

(4) WHAT IS TOM HORNER THINKING?

Independence Party candidate Tom Horner is in a fairly strong position. He has almost sole claim to “the middle” in a general election of two candidates on the far end of their party’s philosophy. He may be the first candidate, likely trailing in a three-way race, to act like a long-time incumbent.

The day after election night, Horner rejected every media invitations for free air time. WCCO’s TV coverage this morning pointed out that it invited Horner to appear for a live interview and he rejected the invitation. “His loss,” reporter Pat Kessler intoned. He’s right. Normally, when you get free media time, you take it.

Horner scheduled a news conference this morning, and scheduled it well before the polls closed last evening. It’s at 11:30 this morning. In Mankato.

Horner’s message is clear: “I’ll talk about the election on my terms.” Fine. But MPR is not likely to provide live coverage of a news conference and neither are local TV stations. So why give up free airtime to get your name and face “out there”? I don’t have an answer other than pure speculation that Horner intends to be the frontrunner merely by acting like one. He is, afterall, a public relations expert.

If we can make all the oil in the Gulf disappear, merely by saying “it’s gone,” who’s to say the strategy won’t work?

(5) NO COMPLAINING ABOUT TURNOUT

Politicians had a choice to make when they moved the primary from September to August, guaranteeing that fewer people would vote. They knew that fewer people would vote. So why didn’t they move it until June, when more people would likely vote? Because they were more than willing to take their chances in an election few people would participate in.

The state had to move the primary because federal law requires overseas military personnel to get at least 45 days to vote by absentee ballot. But when the issue went to the Capitol this year, a proposal was made to move the primary to June.

Rep. Steve Simon, a supporter of the idea, told MPR’s Tom Scheck why he ran up against a brick wall:

“Particularly some Greater Minnesota legislators who argued essentially this: ‘Look, I’m here in St. Paul until the third week in May. If we have a primary in June, some young whippersnapper is going to come along and primary me while I’m stuck here and they’re barnstorming the district,’” Simon said. “Even though when you look around the country, that hasn’t been the case in states with early primaries necessarily more than other states, there’s still that fear out there.”

Some day, using primary as a verb will cost someone an election.

BONUS: THE MOST FRIGHTENING IMAGE FOR MAINSTREAM MEDIA FROM ELECTION NIGHT

Kelliher7.jpg

The future is Twitter. The future is now. (h/t: Nikki Tundel)

TODAY’S QUESTION

(Updated) Half of Minnesota’s schools failed to make adequate yearly progress this year under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Are standardized tests the best way to measure the success of a school?

WHAT WE’RE DOING

Midmorning (9-11 a.m.) – First hour: A discussion of the outcome of the intense Minnesota gubernatorial primary election.

Second hour: A rebroadcast of a conversation on patient-centered care with Dr. Donald Berwick, the new head of Medicare and Medicaid, and Dr. Pauline Chen. Berwick and Chen talked about how to convince doctors to really listen to their patients and get them more involved in their care.

Midday (11 a.m. – 1 p.m.) – First hour: Election results and analysis from Mike Mulcahy, DFLer Todd Rapp, Republican Maureen Shaver, and Tim Penny of the Independence Party.

Second hour: From the Aspen Ideas Festival: What Makes a Great Teacher? Panelists include Howard Gardner, Kati Haycock and Linda Darling-Hammond.

Talk of the Nation (1-3 p.m.) – First hour: NPR’s senior Washington editor, Ron Elving, parses political drama and intrigue.

Second hour: Would the relationship between the West and the Middle East be different if Islam had never existed?