This would be a good time for me to tell you who I thought was going to win Minnesota’s Democratic presidential primary on Tuesday. I’d be making it up, though. Nobody knows. I can’t even tell you who’ll win my precinct, much less Itasca County or the 8th Congressional District.
Polls show hometown favorite Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Vt. Sen. Bernie Sanders the favorites in Minnesota. But those polls came before former Vice President Joe Biden surged back into the national conversation with his South Carolina win. Then there’s big spending Michael Bloomberg and erstwhile frontrunner Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Minnesota won’t be the pivotal Super Tuesday race. The winning campaign here might not even survive the night. And, as I said, there’s no telling what voters will do at the last minute, or the effect of early voting that started before the first contest in Iowa.
So instead I’ll tell you my observations about the primary voters I’ve met. I’ve been around Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor politics for a couple decades. So “awhile” but not “Hubert Humphrey borrowed my chapstick” kind of time.
I’ve nevertheless noticed a trend. It started in 2008 when Barack Obama carried the state caucuses. It continued when Sanders swept the 2016 caucuses. But this year this phenomenon seems omnipresent. Voters aren’t voters anymore; they’re pundits. Voters go into the booth with their heads full of polling data, hypothetical outcomes and assumptions about what everyone else might do.
Why wouldn’t they? That’s what cable and internet news sources feed us.
But I think the effect is pronounced this year because the most unifying desire by Democrats is to defeat President Trump next November.
What Trump has done can’t be overstated. He broke all the rules, some for no reason at all. He’s weaponized the media while trying to destroy it. He’s committed impeachable offenses and been acquitted for them, despite never denying the core facts of the Ukrainian abuse of power case. He did it, and that’s OK. He’s got Republicans voting for huge budget deficits and expanded executive powers, abandoning conservative principles that no longer fit the program.
Moreover, he seems to have done these things as an involuntary reflex. He functions much like a virus that feeds on grievance and foments social division.
And Democrats have responded by assembling into a collective ball of anger and mush. All they want to do is win. And the quest to do so could be the thing that causes them to lose.
We held precinct causes in Minnesota last week. Not to pick presidential candidates, but to select local delegates and pass resolutions. As you might imagine turnout was dismal. Here in Northern Minnesota attendance was especially bad. But the folks who showed up wanted to know who to vote for.
Oh, they know who they liked. But they wanted to know who would win. When told, “I don’t know,” they seemed disturbed. If we all just vote for who we like, the nominee might lose.
The problem with this is that there is no cohesive policy platform or ethos that goes with this kind of thinking. Nor is it organized.
See, I grew up around Iron Range DFL politics. I remember talking to an old county commissioner who said that a significant chunk of the local primary electorate voted for the people whose signs appeared in certain yards. And the numbers backed him up. That’s organization. It can be suffocating and intolerant of change, but it is efficient.
Nothing of the sort exists any longer.
Sanders’s strength, by my estimation, is that he delivers a steamer trunk full of earnestness. He doesn’t say “I don’t know,” or even acknowledge the difficulty of passing his own agenda. He’s got all kinds of problems but you won’t hear about them from him or his supporters.
That formula wins a consistent plurality of support in crowded Democratic primaries. Sanders gets no more than what he got four years ago against Hillary Clinton, but now it’s enough.
Biden’s surge will show up this Tuesday. But it won’t be enough to give him an outright win.
As another Hibbing writer once penned, to a much larger audience, “There’s too much confusion; I can’t get no relief.”
So it goes for Democratic voters all along the watchtower. We are all pundits. And that means most of us are probably wrong.