Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Digging into the SOS Results: Why did Severson Outperform the Ticket?

I have spent the last few hours digging into the results of the Secretary of State's race, trying to see if I could understand why Dan Severson outperformed the other statewide candidates in 2014.

After all my analysis, I have to conclude that I have no idea.

The prevailing theory is that Severson's work with minority communities helped him close the gap in his race, but the data does not seem to back that up.

I based my analysis on comparing Severson's results to those of two other statewide candidates- Jeff Johnson and Randy Gilbert.  Johnson because he was the "top of the ticket," and therefore should theoretically get more votes than down ticket races and Gilbert because the Auditor's race saw a similar "drop-off" rate to the SOS race.

Here are a few high level observations:
  • There were about 1700 more votes in the Auditor's race than the SOS race.  Total "drop-off" (meaning people who voted in race for Governor but not in other constitutional races) was about 3% in both races.  There were about 60,000 fewer votes total for Auditor/SOS than Governor.
  • Despite the drop-off, Severson only trailed Johnson by 227 votes statewide, while he received over 100,000 more votes than Gilbert.
  • Severson received more votes than Johnson in the 4 "outstate" congressional districts (1,6,7,8) while Johnson received more votes than Severson in the "metro" districts of 2,3,4, and 5.
So, the first conclusion you could draw is that Severson outperformed Johnson in outstate areas, while Johnson outperformed Severson in the metro.

These results stay pretty consistent when you break down the data a bit more.

Severson received more votes than Johnson in 59 counties. Johnson carried more votes in 28.

Of the 19 counties where Severson's margin over Johnson was more than 100 votes, all were outstate: Stearns, Benton, Blue Earth, Clay, St. Louis, Crow Wing, Carlton, Houston, Beltrami, Itasca, Nicollet, Steele, Winona, Cass, Waseca, Pennington, Polk, Freeborn, Lyon.

Johnson's margin over Severson exceeded 100 votes in 15 counties, many of which are metro, or border on the metro area: Todd, Sherburne, Chisago, Fillmore, Isanti, Olmsted, Anoka, Mower, Carver, Becker, Wright, Washington, Dakota, Ramsey, Hennepin.

So again on a broad theme, Severson did better outstate, and Johnson did better in the metro.

When you dig into the precinct level results, the results get kind of interesting.  Gilbert actually outperformed Severson and Johnson in several precincts in St. Louis county, but nowhere else.

But again, the precincts that favor Severson tend to be outstate, while the precincts that favor Johnson tend to be in the metro. There are a handful of outliers to that rule, but there doesn't seem to be any pattern.

Overall I will restate that I'm not sure what my analysis ultimately proved, but if the theory about Severson's minority outreach efforts were to be true, I would have expected to see several metro precincts where Severson outperformed the ticket.  That just wasn't the case.

It seems that Severson's strength came mostly from outstate areas, while Johnson's came from the metro.

Here's the spreadsheet I used for my analysis, in case you want to dig in yourself.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Unforced Errors and Missed Opportunities: A Johnson Campaign Retrospective

In my last post about the 2014 elections I promised a more full accounting of the unforced errors, mistakes, and missed opportunities that were made by the Jeff Johnson for Governor campaign.

To repeat:  I believe that Governor Mark Dayton could have been beaten this year, but Republicans chose not to do so, by fielding the wrong candidate and then allowing that candidate to surround himself with the wrong advisers.  Simply put, it is my contention that Jeff Johnson and his team ran a bad campaign, and that’s the reason Mark Dayton will be Governor for 4 more years.  The election results were close enough that the many bad decisions made by Johnson and his staff made a difference in the outcome of the election.

I am performing this exercise as a (most likely futile) attempt to ensure that future campaigns don't make the same mistakes.

Here are a few of the avoidable mistakes that were made, in no particular order.

Making the Race about Dayton as a Person, not Dayton's Policies
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about this election was the desperate and bitter strategy that many Republicans embraced so wholeheartedly- focusing on Mark Dayton's health.  I wrote about how this was a losing strategy here.

This was part of an overall strategy by Johnson's campaign to attack Mark Dayton the person, not the policies of Dayton's Administration and the DFL dominated legislature.

In the closing days of the election, Johnson's team pushed a narrative that Dayton was too old or incompetent to run state government.  This was after they had previously tried to paint Dayton as "Unaware" of the decisions made in his administration.

Yet Dayton's approval rating held steady- Rasmussen had him consistently at around 56% approval.

MNSure/Obamacare, on the other hand, was viewed unfavorably by 53% of likely voters. The Senate Office building was far underwater, with 64% disapproving.  The new gas tax favored by Dayton polled even worse, with 80% disapproving.

But instead of tying Dayton to these unpopular policies and making him own them, they repeated Dayton's excuse that he was "unaware" of these issues, and instead attacked him personally.

Johnson's campaign made the mistake of thinking Minnesota voters hated Mark Dayton as much as they obviously did, and lost because of it.

Failing to Attract Outside Money
There are those who wish to blame Johnson's loss on outside groups who failed to spend on his behalf. Those people have it backwards.  Outside groups have no obligation to make up for the deficiencies of a campaign.  On the contrary, it is the responsibility of the candidate and their staff to show outside groups that their campaign would be a good investment. 

Outside groups on the Republican side want to make good investments, not prop up a losing effort.  You can whine about this if you choose to, but it is much more effective to understand what motivates these groups, and what compels them to spend on your behalf.  Johnson's campaign chose the former course, not the latter.

Failing to Raise Enough Money
During the Primary Election, Johnson set a goal of raising a million dollars.  He missed that goal by about $800,000, but still pulled off a win, which many attribute to his party endorsement and the money spent on his behalf because of it.

After the Primary, Johnson's campaign manager told the Star Tribune that Johnson was not aiming to raise the full $4 million that he was allowed to spend, aiming instead for a "more modest" goal of around $2 million.  Johnson's staff later walked back that comment and said it would be more like $3 million- still a full million shy of the limit.  We don't know yet how much Johnson's campaign ultimately raised, but the report that covers through October 20 has him at just under the $2 million mark for the year.

Johnson's campaign simply did not raise enough money to compete in this race. It's hard to believe that he would have won the endorsement if he had been honest and conceded that he never had plans to raise the full amount allowable by law.

Focusing on the Wrong Issues
In a very telling interview during the State Fair, Johnson told MinnPost that one of the top things he wanted to focus on as Governor was the achievement gap in education, but nobody was bringing it up to him on the campaign trail.

In fact, though, I'm hard pressed to point out any issues that Johnson championed during his campaign, except for perhaps a four year multi-million dollar audit of state government.  I think it's safe to say this didn't come up at the Fair either.

Johnson's campaign never gave anybody a reason to vote "for" him and not just against Dayton, and in the end that wasn't enough to get the job done.

Standing for Nothing
In what was really the seminal post of this election, Michael Brodkorb uses a cup of coffee to illustrate Johnson's main shortcoming as a candidate- he didn't stand for anything.

Amazingly, even after the coffee dust-up, Johnson managed to flub the answer to "what's your favorite Halloween candy" - changing his answer to match Dayton's.

Really though, the coffee post at Politics.MN does a great job chronicling the flips and flops of the Johnson candidacy, including his changing positions on MNSure, Scrappy Fighter vs Nice Guy, the minimum wage, the Tea Party, and more.

Picking the Wrong LG Candidate
The selection of Bill "Who?" Kuisle left many people confused when the news first broke (including Kuisle himself), and reaction was almost universally negative outside the Johnson bubble.

Johnson's team broke with the long tradition of gender balance on the ticket, and instead selected a little know former legislator who had been out of the legislature for many years, and had lost his last few elections.

In the first few weeks after his selection, Kusile traveled across the state, putting his foot in his mouth at nearly every stop.  Johnson's campaign was forced to issue "corrections" about his running mate's comments on frac sand mining, and Highway 2, the latter of which caused Johnson's campaign to earn a stunning rebuke from a local newspaper.

The campaign eventually pulled Kuisle off the trail entirely, and then when he did rejoin the efforts, he was rarely left alone.

Johnson's campaign also refused to let Kuisle debate Dayton's LG pick Tina Smith, which, all things considered, was probably one of the better decisions they made.

Failing to Leverage Surrogates
Johnson already cut himself short one surrogate when he picked an LG candidate who couldn't be left to campaign alone, but he and his campaign also failed to make effective use of any surrogates.

Instead of working with the other statewide candidates to form a cohesive messaging strategy that could be delivered independently by anyone across the state, we were more likely to see (in blurry tweeted pictures) Johnson and other statewide candidates speaking to the same small groups of Republicans at the same time.

There were 5 Republican candidates for constitutional offices in Minnesota this year, and instead of building a cohesive team that could divide and conquer, we saw a disjointed and anemic effort by all of the candidates.  Johnson was fond of referring to himself as the "leader of the ticket," but showed no effort to actually lead.

Failing to Embrace Critics

If there was one thing that Johnson's campaign was consistent on from day one- it was their focus on lashing out at critics within their own party.

Critics play an important role in campaigns, and smart campaigns embrace them.  Johnson's campaign was not short on people who thought they were doing a great job, yet Johnson surrounded himself with people who told him what he wanted to hear.  The echo chamber benefits no-one.

Disbelieving the Polls
I thought Republicans had learned their lesson about Poll Trutherism in 2012. I was wrong.  The polls in this race were accurate.  The final SurveyUSA/KSTP poll showed Dayton 5 points up, and he won by 5.5.  Yet Johnson and his team were defiant about the polls to the bitter end.

In conclusion...
Each of the mistakes, missteps and missed opportunities listed above was well within the control of Johnson and his staff.  They made bad choices, and we have to live with the consequences.

This race was winnable; Republicans, led by Jeff Johnson and his staff, chose not to win it. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Buck Should Stop With Team Johnson

I was interviewed by Politics in Minnesota last week for a story recapping the 2014 elections.
I believe that Governor Mark Dayton could have been beaten this year, but Republicans chose not to do so, by fielding the wrong candidate and then allowing that candidate to surround himself with the wrong advisers.  Simply put, it is my contention that Jeff Johnson and his team ran a bad campaign, and that’s the reason Mark Dayton will be Governor for 4 more years.  The election results were close enough that the many bad decisions* made by Johnson and his staff made a difference in the outcome of the election.

I have heard the spin starting from many quarters about what went wrong with the election, and it’s clear that some people are trying to rewrite history in an attempt to avoid their fair share of the blame. 

As an example, one of Johnson’s main strategists, Gregg Peppin, was also quoted in the same Politics in Minnesota story.  I was literally speechless after I read Peppin’s comments explaining why Johnson lost.  The story is behind the PIM paywall, but here’s the relevant portion.

Peppin, for his part, now thinks ABM was able to put the GOP operation on its back foot, having successfully tarred Johnson as a “Tea Party” candidate who would cut education funding if elected.

“The [ABM] playbook is to define the Republican candidate for governor before that candidate can define themselves,” Peppin said. Recalling the group’s scorching campaign against Tom Emmer in 2010, he added: “For the second election in a row, I think they were able to do that.”

For some context on why this comment is so egregious, I have to explain some history.

I was invited to a “Blogger Event” by Johnson’s campaign in July 2013.  A few bloggers got together with the campaign at the Davanni’s in Roseville and we heard from Johnson and his advisers (including Larry Colson, Craig Westover, and Danny Nadeau) about their campaign strategy, and then were given the opportunity to ask questions.  

I asked at that meeting what Johnson’s plan was to combat the influence of Alliance for a Better Minnesota (ABM) on the campaign.  The answer was, and I quote: “Jeff is ABM-Proof”.  Several of Johnson’s key advisers went on to explain that Johnson had a “squeaky clean” background and there was nothing that could be used against him.  To be clear, Johnson was sitting in the room, nodding in agreement.

The stunning ignorance and arrogance of that statement was one of the many reasons that I decided early on that Johnson’s campaign had no chance of winning this election.

Johnson was also asked at that meeting what his plans were to deal with the lopsided amount of outside spending that we have seen in recent elections.  His answer was that there were some big donors looking to set up a Super PAC to help him out, and that we shouldn’t worry about it.  Apparently that Super PAC never materialized, because I am unaware of any massive outside spending that came to Johnson’s aid.

Johnson and his team were aware of the “ABM playbook” and the outside spending disadvantage they would have well before Johnson got into the race for Governor, but never came up with a plan to mitigate those factors.  As a result, they lost, and we all get another Dayton administration.

Peppin’s comments about ABM are even more ludicrous in how they attempt to blame that group for defining Johnson as a “Tea Party” candidate, when it was Johnson who defined himself that way.  It wasn’t ABM who advised Johnson to campaign extensively at Tea Party meetings and refer to himself as “we” when he was at Tea Party events- those decisions were made by Johnson and his advisers.

Jeff Johnson said in one of his (rare) TV ads that “The buck stops” with him. It will be interesting to see if Johnson and his team eventually own up to their starring role in this loss, but based on Team Johnson’s behavior so far, I won’t be holding my breath.

If Republicans want any chance to win a statewide race again, they need a full and honest assessment of what went wrong this year, not ridiculous spin from campaign consultants trying to avoid blame. 

For this loss, the buck should stop with Team Johnson.

* More on the bad decisions and unforced errors committed by Team Johnson coming soon.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Republican Focus on Mark Dayton’s Health is a Desperate and Losing Strategy

In the absence of any real momentum from the Jeff Johnson campaign, an alarming number of Republicans have begun to latch on to a new strategy – raising concerns about Governor Mark Dayton’s health.  Specifically, the claim is that Dayton is too mentally ill to be Governor, the apparent proof being Dayton’s speech patterns.

Rumors and innuendo about Dayton’s health are not new.  Senator Mike Parry infamously accused Dayton of "pill popping" during his failed run for Congress in 2012.

What is new, however, is how mainstream this strategy has become among some Republicans, as it has now been embraced by both the Republican Party of Minnesota (RPM) and the Johnson campaign.  

Erin Haust, a paid consultant for RPM, issued a series of tweets during the first gubernatorial debate this week calling Dayton “incoherent” and “not well”, a sentiment echoed by twitter personality @EyeOnPolitics (real name Diana), an advisor to Johnson’s campaign.

Johnson’s campaign engaged in this strategy directly when it boasted in a press release about the campaign's first ad that Johnson had “narrated almost all of the ad himself” while his supporters were pushing the narrative on social media that Dayton did not speak in his first ad because he was too unwell to do so.

This focus on Dayton’s health is a desperate strategy, and one that will not end in victory for Republicans.

Dayton has been quite upfront about his ongoing struggles with alcoholism and depression, giving an in depth interview about the topic during the primary race for Governor in 2009.

When asked to comment about Dayton's health, Tony Sutton, who was the RPM Chair in 2009 stated: "It's not relevant. I am more troubled with what he wants to do to businesses in this state than I am about his private mental health issues or his struggles with drinking."

The RPM did, however, try to make Dayton’s behavior an issue in the 2010 race.  The first ad released after Dayton secured his party’s nomination was titled “Erratic” – the title taken from a quote in a Time Magazine article written about Dayton’s time in the US Senate.  Highlighting Dayton’s erratic behavior was a strategy used by RPM throughout the campaign.

Dayton was elected anyway.  Minnesota voters had the information and the opportunity to judge Dayton unfit for office. They declined.

Since then, Dayton has built a record as Governor- one that should be target-rich for his opponent.

Republicans who don’t want to see Dayton re-elected would be better served focusing on that record, trying to create real contrast about their ideas, and outlining their competing vision for Minnesota.

If Republicans can’t convince voters they would do a better job governing without stooping to petty attacks on Dayton’s speech, they don’t deserve the opportunity to govern.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Crazy Lady Has a Point

Let's get this out of the way right away. In no way do I think Michelle MacDonald is fit to be a Supreme Court Justice.  I won't vote for her in November, and I didn't vote to endorse her at the MNGOP convention.

That being said, several hundred delegates to the convention did.  As I pointed out in my last post on the subject, the delegates endorsed MacDonald in the same way that they endorsed Jeff Johnson,  Scott Newman, Dan "No I Won't Call you 'Doc'" Severson and the other candidates who were endorsed that weekend.

Unfortunately there are many within the Republican Party who want to pretend that the issues related to MacDonald's endorsement are unique to the judicial endorsement process. Or that the issue is judicial endorsements, not how the party operates.  (Let me remind you that a few months before the convention that endorsed MacDonald, Don Allen was judged qualified to be party chair by the nominations committee.)  There are also those who are still trafficking in the discredited notion that MacDonald's legal issues weren't known when she was recommended to the body.

All of those are distractions from the reality, which is that the Party's process for selecting candidates to support is severely flawed, and the leadership within the Party continues to mishandle this entire situation.

In this video from Politics.MN, MacDonald can be seen making her case for why she should be allowed to campaign in the MNGOP State Fair booth.  She references the now infamous memo from MNGOP Chair Keith Downey which instructed Republicans to either support endorsed candidates or resign.  She then calls on Downey to resign for not supporting her.

And you know what? She has a point.

The Republican Party invested heavily in defending the value of their endorsement process this cycle.  It started with Downey's memo and boiled up to some pretty nasty stuff directed toward a district that wouldn't get with the program.

After MacDonald was endorsed, the party had backed itself into a corner and instead of admitting the problems with their endorsement, they decided to stand by her.

That was until MacDonald broadcast her intentions to campaign at the State Fair every day this year.  In an eleventh hour move, the MNGOP Executive Committee voted to ban her from the booth, effectively pouring a few gallons of kerosene on the fire and setting up today's made for the media confrontation.

As of the moment, the Party still has MacDonald listed on several of their websites as a candidate. They want to somehow continue to support MacDonald while denying her support.

The Party can't have it both ways. Either the endorsement is a sacred trust that must be defended at all costs against all enemies perceived or real, or it is a fallible process.  Admitting the latter could discredit their candidates, stubbornly clinging to a belief in the former will do the same.

The silly thing in all of this is that every wound inflicted on the MNGOP during this process has been self-inflicted. The Party could have chosen a path of sanity and let the primary election play out without heavy handed attempts at enforcing loyalty, but they decided to lay down an ultimatum instead.

Then, when the body made an obvious error in endorsing an unfit candidate, they had to defend her.  After all, we have to respect the will of the delegates, right?  Acknowledging that the delegates sometimes get it wrong would have been the right thing to do, but by that point the party was too far down the path to turn around.

This whole thing is a mess, and it all could have been avoided. But apparently Party leadership wasn't up to the task.