Minnesota’s top DFLers got good news from a recent Public Policy Polling survey. They are receiving public support that dwarfs Minnesota’s leading Republicans. The approval rating for Senator Al Franken stands at 49% and the approval rating for Governor Mark Dayton is at 48%, while the favorability ratings for former Governor Tim Pawlenty (40%), former U.S. Senator Norm Coleman (35%), and U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann (29%) are much lower.
Moreover, Franken would handily defeat any of the three top Republicans if the election were held today. Franken would defeat Bachmann by 12 points, Pawlenty by 7 points, and Norm Coleman, who Franken barely defeated two years ago, by 7 points.
Why are top DFLers polling so much stronger than top Republicans? Some might theorize that these DFLers are simply more talented and charismatic politicians, and that explains the gap.
But in terms of being articulate media magnates, the top three Republicans are more accomplished than the top two DFLers. Former comedian and talk show host Franken is obviously capable of being articulate and grabbing the spotlight. But the fact is, Franken has been very low key since becoming a U.S. Senator two years ago. Dayton is an earnest but awkward communicator, and is easily the most low-key of the bunch. At the same time, Pawlenty, Coleman and Bachmann are very articulate leaders who regularly get themselves on national news programs. But despite the charisma gap, Franken and Dayton are much more popular with Minnesotans.
If political talent and charisma don’t explain why top DFL politicians are more popular than top GOP politicians, another theory might be that ideology is behind the gap. That is, maybe Minnesota is becoming a more progressive state these days.
However, that doesn’t bear out in PPP’s polling on state legislative races.
When asked who they are inclined to support in a state legislative race in their district, Minnesotans are split, with the generic DFL candidate chosen by 47% of the respondents and the generic GOP candidate chosen by 44% of the respondents, a 3% margin that falls within the 3.4% margin of cerror.
So, what explains the difference between the strong performance of top of the ticket DFLers and the mediocre performance of the DFLers in the state legislature?
It’s far from the only explanation, but one big factor is messaging. The messaging of Franken and Dayton is clear and consistent, and it is proving to be compelling with Minnesotans. On the other hand, DFL legislative candidates are offering up a cacophony of scattershot messages that each individual candidate crafts on their own to appeal to their respective districts.
I’ve argued that legislative candidates should unite under a common statewide campaign theme along the lines of “replace the worst legislature ever,” to make the election into a referendum on the unpopular GOP-controlled Legislature. After all “worst ever” is the verdict Minnesotans have given the current GOP-controlled Legislature, with a 19% approval rating, which appears to be the lowest level ever recorded. That kind of sticky, unifying campaign umbrella would convert the the legislators’ confusing cacophony into the kind of consistent messaging that is benefiting top-of-the-ticket DFLers.
Whether caused by messaging or something else, the gap between the performance of the upper echelon DFLers and the DFLers in the State Legislature is striking. DFL legislative candidates would be wise to study the approaches of Franken and Dayton, and replicate them.
Note: This post was also featured in Politics in Minnesota’s “Best of the Blogs” feature.