The first two polls released since Dean Barkley won the Independence Party primary last week still show a very close race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken, with Barkley receiving 13 percent (Minnesota Poll) and 14 percent (SurveyUSA) support among likely voters.
While Barkley’s numbers are up about 6 points from surveys conducted this summer before he won the IP slot on the ballot, his boost among Gopher State voters has not yet disproportionately deflated Franken’s numbers vis-à-vis Coleman.
At first blush, this is a bit perplexing. As detailed last month here at Smart Politics, Barkley’s policy positions on many issues substantively overlap with those held by Franken and the DFL. As a result, one would expect the DFL candidate to be more vulnerable to an Independence Party candidacy.
But the internals of the new polls tell a different story: according to SurveyUSA, Barkley is getting the nod from 10 percent of likely GOP voters and 11 percent of DFL voters (though Minnesotans self-identify more as Democrats than Republicans, so there is a little bit of an extra ‘hit’ here to Franken).
Why is this?
One possible explanation is that Barkley is bringing in a fair amount of new voters – both Democrats and Republicans – who would not otherwise have voted in the race. While that is theoretically possible, it is probably not the primary explanation (especially in a high-profile presidential election year): Barkley has only been campaigning for two months and does not have the treasure to compete with Franken and Coleman in media buys to get his name and views out to the public.
Another explanation is as follows: this election was set up from the start for a very strong chance at a Democratic pick-up. In general, the mood of the country (even with the McCain/Palin surge) favors Congressional Democratic candidates in swing states / districts this election, at least those with only moderately popular incumbents, like Coleman.
Franken, however, has proven in poll after poll to be even more unpopular than Coleman – with unfavorability ratings flirting with 50 percent since his campaign began in 2007.
Barkley, has thus been able to pick off the low-hanging fruit in the electorate – weakly identified partisans on the left and right – because of Franken’s, shall we say, ‘controversial’ personality and background, and the detrimental political environment facing Coleman.
As a result, Barkley is not damaging Franken’s chances nearly as much as he would if this were a year more favorable to Republicans; and he is not damaging Coleman as much as he would if Franken were not such a lightning rod candidate.
One reason polls back in June and July indicated Franken’s numbers were damaged much more than Coleman’s by Jesse Ventura’s potential candidacy is that Ventura appealed more to Franken’s “anti-establishment�? supporters (i.e. those intrigued by the cult of celebrity and those who want a political outsider to ‘shake up Washington’). Barkley does not offer the celebrity factor, and, though he is running on a third party platform, his policy views are not so different from the DFL en masse that it appears he will ‘shake things up’ (at least not to the extent of a Ventura candidacy).