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Winning (apparently) is(n't) everything

The numbers strongly suggest that Peter Hutchinson won't be elected governor next month. So what explains his continuing campaign? The answer helps point out the need for electoral reform.

October 15, 2006--Star Tribune http://www.startribune.com/562/story/741326.html

Lawrence R. Jacobs

Peter Hutchinson is almost certainly not going to win the governor's race. Should he stay in? And, are there implications for our democracy?

Hutchinson's support has been stuck between 5 and 9 points since mid-September, according to polls by five independent organizations. His support stood at 9 points in a recent poll by Rasmussen.

By comparison, at this point in their campaigns, the Independence Party's Jesse Ventura was receiving 15 to 21 percent (1998) and Tim Penny was attracting 26 percent (2002). Equally troubling for Hutchinson's prospects, he is not matching Ventura's trajectory as he rose from obscurity to win the governor's office. Ventura's standing had jumped from 10 percent in mid-September to 21 percent in mid-October, according to Star Tribune surveys.

Hutchinson's strategy for winning -- locking up the independent vote and wooing a good number of Democrats and Republicans -- is not working.

The Humphrey Institute's survey in late September showed that Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Democratic Attorney General Mike Hatch were each receiving more than a third of independents, leaving Hutchinson with only 21 percent of what should be his base of support. Making matters worse, about 9 out of 10 Democrats and Republicans are sticking with their party's nominee.

Nor should Hutchinson count on keeping the support he has. Fifty-nine percent of his backers say they might change their mind, a level two to three times higher than among supporters of his principal rivals, according to the Humphrey Institute survey.

Given these numbers, should Hutchinson stay in the race?

His participation in the debates is helpfully raising important issues on taxes, government spending and social issues that his Democratic and Republican counterparts duck or fuzz up. But if his contribution is to widen the dialogue, should he drop out after the debates are over?

Political purposes beyond this race may also play a role. Staying in may be a way to build political support for the Independence Party over time. To maintain its "major party" status, one of the party's statewide candidates needs to win at least 5 percent of the vote. Hutchinson probably has the best shot to reach that level and secure the campaign funding and media attention that come with it.

But if that is perceived as the only reason to stay in the race, it may not sit comfortably with his campaign's apolitical "good government" theme.

It isn't clear who would benefit if Hutchinson were to leave the gubernatorial race. Early on, it appeared that Hutchinson's presence would mostly hurt Hatch by splitting the anti-incumbent vote. The evidence so far, though, is that he is drawing equally from both major parties. The Humphrey survey found that he received 5 percent of the Democratic vote and 4 percent of the Republican vote.

But there are wider implications. The struggles of Hutchinson and third parties demonstrate the stifling impact of the rules of the political game and should set off alarms about the need for thoroughgoing political reform.

Minneapolis' close look at Instant Runoff Voting, which allows voters to rank candidates, deserves attention. It may open the door to third parties and to ensuring that winners are chosen by majorities, rather than the pluralities of 37 percent and 44 percent that put Ventura and Pawlenty in office.

The harmful impacts of today's election system extend beyond the constraining effects on third parties. Even in a year of political upheaval, the vast majority of incumbents in state and national legislatures will win reelection -- probably by more than 20 points. The reason is that incumbents influence which voters are included in their legislative districts. Democracy is based on voters choosing their candidates, not the candidates choosing their voters.

We need to take a hard look at wide-ranging reforms of our political system to make it more open, competitive and accountable to voters.

Lawrence R. Jacobs is director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

©2006 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

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