If all this seems a funny political sideshow, it isn’t. Ventura’s election carries important implications for politics in Minnesota and the nation as a whole. His triumph seems so beyond the pale that a lot must be happening in our politics to cause it. And a lot is. Jesse’s ascendancy underscores the great and growing weaknesses of our two major parties with the public. It reveals that third parties have a future in American politics only if national campaign finance and voter registration rules come to resemble those now in force in Minnesota. The success of Ventura’s unorthodox, low-budget campaign ads exposes the shortcomings of conventional political advertising. And, perhaps most disturbingly, Jesse’s rise to the top confirms the growing power of celebrity and entertainment in American politics.
How He Did It
Jesse’s victory required a harmonic convergence of legal and political circumstances that took Minnesota’s quirky political populism to a new level. During the ’90s, voters in Minnesota have taken a liking to candidates who attack the “political establishment” of the state from all manner of directions. In 1990 and 1996, Paul Wellstone’s tie-dyed leftist insurgency carried him to victory over establishment Republican Rudy Boschwitz. Rod Grams, as emphatically to the right as Wellstone is to the left, won a Senate seat during the 1994 nationwide Republican insurgency, defeating Ann Wynia, a conventional liberal well-known and widely respected among Minnesota’s political establishment. Arne Carlson, the outgoing Republican governor, is a scrapper who has been at war with the activists in his own party for years, and has won office twice despite being denied endorsement for the party primary by two consecutive state Republican conventions. Jesse is the culmination of this trend, rocking the political establishment from the “radical” center.
Why do Minnesotans like the insurgent style in their statewide candidates? The answer lies in the decay of the two major parties in the state. Two decades ago, scholars routinely ranked Minnesota as a state with a strong party system. No more. Though both the Democratic and Republican parties of the state still boast big budgets and many officeholders, they have lost their hold over the voters.
Each election year, Minnesota’s parties hold a statewide set of precinct caucuses followed by county and congressional district conventions. At the June state convention, the parties write a platform and endorse a favored candidate for the September primary. Over the last 20 years, attendance at the precinct caucuses has dwindled to the point where the total number of those showing up for both parties’ caucuses wouldn’t even fill the 50,000 seats of the Metrodome (home of the Twins and Vikings). Party activists have become extreme, standing well to the left and right of most voters. In addition, established interest groups – the AFL-CIO and Education Minnesota (the modestly titled state teachers’ union) among the Democrats, and anti-tax and Christian conservatives among the Republicans – set the platform agenda and often hand-pick the endorsed candidates.
The result is that each party’s endorsing convention has become an outpost of exotic politics. Evangelical religion is heavy in the air when Republicans meet, and this year Democrats passed a rule declaring their convention must be “fragrance free” lest any delegate’s perfume offend another’s allergies. The result of this trend? The public says no, thank you, to endorsed candidates. The last party-endorsed gubernatorial candidate to actually win election was Rudy Perpich when he ran for reelection in 1986. Since then, voters in the primaries have rejected the endorsed candidates (Alan Quist, in 1994 the endorsed Republican candidate for governor, lost 2 to 1 to Governor Carlson in the primary) or they have gotten waxed in November (John Marty, the endorsed Democrat for governor in 1994, won a primary squeaker and then in November also lost 2 to 1 to Carlson).
With the parties now in disrepute, Minnesota’s elections have become more candidate-centered, particularly at the statewide level, where television rules. Those endorsed candidates who have won statewide all had an insurgent quality that blurred any association they had with the activists and interest groups of their political party. Each winner got around the unpopularity of their party via personal style. And in this lay Jesse Ventura’s great opportunity – style.
Ventura, a Minneapolis native, was well known from his wrestling days. In recent years, he had reigned as a local talk radio host, where he spouted a vague constellation of views. Though he knew little about the actual operations of government, he claimed to be socially libertarian regarding abortion and gay rights, yet a strong fiscal conservative. As Mayor of the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Park in the early ’90s, he feuded frequently with the city council. His record in office was mixed; crime went down but taxes went up.
When Ventura announced his candidacy, his slogan was “Retaliate in ’98,” a sort of “up yours” to the Minnesota political establishment. The state legislature’s handling of the huge $2 billion budget surplus in 1998 was the catalyst for Ventura’s candidacy. The legislature returned less than half of it in tax relief, saving some as a fiscal reserve and using the rest for a variety of spending programs. Ventura promised to return the entire surplus if he were elected.
Through September, most observers viewed Ventura as an amusing sideshow. The victors in the party primaries, Democratic Attorney General Hubert “Skip” Humphrey (son of the famous Hubert) and Republican St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, are both life-long government employees and officeholders. Each was personally cautious and “button-down” in demeanor. They provided a nice gray background for Jesse’s campaign antics. Every act needs a straight man, and Jesse had two of them. The great mistake during the fall came from the Humphrey campaign. Hopeful that Ventura would draw “angry white male” voters away from Coleman, they insisted that Ventura be included in each of 10 debates. Jesse had his stage. In the debates, he stated his views in a blustery, candid, and disarming fashion. For instance, when asked whether he favored state aid for college students, Jesse disapproved and called on students to “get a job!” It became clear that he knew little about policy, but he did speak sincerely and displayed a commanding, charismatic presence. Coleman and Humphrey largely ignored Jesse and sniped at each other during the debates, allowing Jesse to seem appealingly anti-political.
The clueless cooperation of Humphrey and Coleman, however, was not enough to propel Jesse to victory. Several other forces helped push him over the top. Polling in October fired Ventura’s momentum. His support rose through the teens in October to 27 percent (with Humphrey at 35 percent and Coleman at 30 percent) in the last published Minneapolis Star Tribune poll, taken the week before the election. Such late polls made it clear that Jesse could win, encouraging his supporters and prompting many voters to view him as a serious alternative.
All this still would not have been enough, had it not been for two election laws. First, Minnesota’s campaign finance law entitled Jesse to $330,000 in public funds. Minnesota law treats third-party candidates for statewide office in a fashion similar to the way national law treats third-party candidates in presidential elections. In 1994 and 1996, Dean Barkley, the Reform Party candidate for the U.S. Senate, received a whisker over 5 percent of the overall vote. This qualified the Reform Party as a “major party” eligible for public campaign funding. Upon reaching the 5 percent threshold, major party candidates receive a share of public funds to conduct their campaigns. The Democratic and Republican nominees received over a million dollars but are limited to $2.1 million in total campaign spending. Thanks to Barkley’s 1994 and 1996 finishes, Ventura, the Reform Party candidate for governor, was eligible after the election for a fraction of the amount allocated to Humphrey and Coleman. The precise amount depended on the size of his support at the polls, which had to equal at least 5 percent in order for him to receive any funds at all. Assuming a 5 percent finish, Jesse was able to arrange bank loans for $330,000, to be reimbursed by taxpayers.
This law helped Jesse win in several ways. First, he had raised few private funds, and so became heavily dependent on the public subsidy. (This despite the fact that he ran a campaign strongly opposed to public spending!) Second, he was able to hire populist image-meister Bill Hillsman, a Twin Cities advertising executive who was the inspiration behind the successful and unorthodox ads that propelled underdog Wellstone into the Senate in 1990. Hillsman’s ads, particularly one featuring the Jesse Ventura “action figure” fighting a corrupt lobbyist “action figure,” proved effective and memorable. Without the ads, Ventura could not have eked out his 55,000 vote plurality. Campaign finance laws do have consequences. No public money, no ads, no victory. Third, the law kept Coleman, his major rival, from spending all of the money he could have raised. Additional spending by Coleman might have erased Ventura’s narrow margin of victory.
Ventura was also helped by the fact that Minnesota is one of only seven states that allow voters to register on election day. A surge of young, first-time voters took advantage of last-minute registration to cast their ballots for Jesse. Minnesota’s turnout led the nation as 60.1 percent of those eligible went to the polls. Statewide, a remarkable one in six voters registered on election day, the highest proportion of the electorate to do so since the mid-’70s when the law was first implemented. Anoka County, a populous suburban area north of Minneapolis, provides a striking example of the Ventura effect. There, Jesse received 51 percent of the vote (compared to 37 percent statewide). Turnout in the county was an astounding 72 percent, with 22,375 people registering on election day. Similar results occurred in other areas of Ventura support across the state. Exit polls revealed that 12 percent of those voting would not have done so if Ventura had not been on the ballot. By this measure, Jesse’s candidacy pulled 250,000 people to the polls. Without Election Day registration, Minnesotans would be adjusting to Governor Norm Coleman, who narrowly lost to Jesse and led Humphrey by six percentage points.
What It Means
Some reasons for Jesse’s triumph are specific to Minnesota, but many are not. Our national parties share many of the weaknesses of their Minnesota counterparts. Though the Minnesota parties spent well over a million dollars in get-out-the-vote efforts on Election Day, the personal appeal of the poorly funded but engaging Ventura swamped their efforts. Exit polls showed that 33 percent of Democrats and 29 percent of Republicans voted for Ventura. The national parties, swollen with soft money and complacent with thousands of officeholders, also do a poor job of getting out the vote. A miserable 36 percent of eligible voters showed up nationwide on Election Day, 1998. Conventional partisan politics is hardly more popular nationally than in Minnesota.
The Ventura candidacy is a warning bell to the national parties about their extremism and dependence on powerful interest groups. For evidence on both counts, one need look no further than the U.S. House of Representatives. There, the caucuses of both parties are dominated by ideologues of the left and right, each well-supported by the contributions of their favorite organized interests. Ventura’s victory suggests that time may be running out on such conventional politics. The Minnesota public shares a common disgust of it with the national public, and happened to find an outlet for this discontent in Ventura.
The success of Hillsman’s ads for Ventura illustrates another weakness in national electoral politics. Political consultants, including those who worked for Coleman and Humphrey, rely on shopworn advertising styles during campaigns, often featuring heavily negative messages. Indeed, ads in one state often seem virtually indistinguishable from ads shown in every other. Why is this? According to Hillsman, it all goes back to the desire of consultants to make a buck. Since ad consultants are paid in a percentage of the overall ad “buy,” the incentive is for quick work and heavy quantity in campaign advertising. Big buys mean big bucks for consultants. Since certain ads have worked in the past, qualitative experimentation of the sort done by Hillsman is risky. Further, quality ads can prove effective at a small fraction of the cost of conventional ads, as did Hillsman’s, and what consultant wants to slice his/her income drastically? Hillsman argues that spending limits might actually improve campaign ads by shifting the focus from quantity to quality.
A third lesson for national politics from Minnesota is that third parties have no chance in national elections without campaign finance reform. True, Perot did break through at the presidential level, but only by spending tens of millions of his own dollars first. That’s a high cost of entry. If the threshold is high at the presidential level, it is virtually insurmountable in congressional elections, where no public financing exists. Unless third parties can earn public matching funds, they will be spent to death by the two major parties, regardless of how attractive any third party candidate proves to be. The current campaign finance laws allow the activist zealots and powerful interests dominating our two major parties to maintain their grip on the electorate. To loosen that grip, the laws must change.
A final, and disturbing lesson from Minnesota concerns the triumph of style over substance. True, Jesse Ventura placed himself somewhere between Humphrey’s liberalism and Coleman’s conservatism, but it was never very clear just where he stood. Some of his ideas voiced during the campaign – such as prohibiting welfare recipients from having cable television and requiring the cable companies to enforce this law – are just plain wacky. Now that Ventura’s elected, he has stopped calling for a refund of last year’s surplus to taxpayers. Minnesotans are waiting for their governor-elect to figure out his positions on major issues. A tax cut? Spending increases? Spending cuts? Education reforms? Who knows? Jesse is very much a work in progress.
If elections worked the way they are supposed to, Minnesotans would have known the answers to these questions before the election. Certainly, Humphrey and Coleman showered them with policy detail. That didn’t matter to many voters, including the 46 percent of those under the age of 30 who gave Ventura their vote. Jesse provided a little information about the issues – and a lot of entertainment. It was fun. It just wasn’t substantive.
The generational aspect of Ventura’s victory is ultimately the most disturbing. Younger voters like Jesse’s act, and hate the language of conventional politics. A lot of standard political discourse is pretty tacky, but at its core, it is more substantive than anything Jesse has yet uttered. As infotainment becomes the rage on local news, Americans may come to demand more infotainment candidates like Jesse. He’s fun, he’s a celebrity and he’s unconventional. Can he govern? Who knows?