Throughout his U.S. Senate campaign, Al Franken was dogged by criticisms, even peppered from within his own party, that he was a ‘weak candidate’ for the DFL. These criticisms took many forms, such as stern words regarding Franken’s writings and temperament from respected DFL U.S. Representative Betty McCollum to the DFL primary challenge launched by Priscilla Lord Faris.

But, above all, intraparty criticisms against Franken were borne out of the cold hard polling data that frequently found its nominee struggling to gain an advantage over Republican Norm Coleman in an election year in which Barack Obama was set to easily carry the Gopher State (which he eventually did, by 10+ points).

While still hoping that Franken would overtake Norm Coleman’s Election Day vote tally advantage, many DFLers and liberal blogs continued to lament how they ended up with the famous satirist as their 2008 candidate through the past two months. The rationale of their discontent was simply this: in an election year in which the top of the DFL ticket carried the state by a double-digit margin, why is the DFL even in a position to need a recount to win its Senate race?

All may well be forgiven if ultimately Franken holds onto his 225-vote lead he has amassed to date in the recount process. But the truth remains, just as Norm Coleman overperformed in the face of historically staggering odds, Al Franken clearly underperformed in the current political and ideological environment.

A Smart Politics analysis of Minnesota’s historical U.S. Senate election returns finds Franken’s performance to be the 4th worst out of the 22 DFL nominees on the ballot in general elections since the DFL merger in 1944, when measured against the performance of DFLers at the top of the ticket in presidential and gubernatorial elections held that year. (Note: by comparing margin of victories and not vote percentages, the impact of Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley on the Senate race is minimized in this historical analysis).

Whether or not Franken prevails against Coleman’s likely election contest, only three other DFL candidates will have sustained a worse net margin of victory or loss vis-à-vis the DFL performance at the top of the ticket than Franken’s 10.2 point net marginal deficit to Barack Obama. Only Mark Dayton in 1982 (24.9 net points behind Rudy Perpich), Hubert Humphrey III in 1988 (22.3 net points behind Michael Dukakis), and Joan Anderson Growe in 1984 (17.0 net points behind Walter Mondale) incurred a larger net margin of victory or loss.

Franken’s weak performance comes on the heels of a string of 5-straight elections dating back to 1990 in which the DFL Senate nominee performed comparatively stronger than the top of the ticket, both in victory (Amy Klobuchar in 2006, Paul Wellstone in 1996 and 1990) and in loss (Walter Mondale in 2002, Ann Wynia in 1994).

As a result, just as Norm Coleman’s performance will be noted for being historically strong, Franken’s victory will be noted for being historically weak, and thus all the more remarkable in victory, should he prevail.

Strongest DFL U.S. Senate Margin of Victories Vis-à-vis Top of the Ticket Voting, 1946-2008

DFL Candidate
DFL US Senate
DFL President
DFL Governor
Hubert H. Humphrey
Ann Wynia
Amy Klobuchar
Walter Mondale
Walter Mondale
Hubert H. Humphrey
Hubert H. Humphrey
Hubert H. Humphrey
Mark Dayton
Paul Wellstone
Walter Mondale
Hubert H. Humphrey
Theodore Jorgenson
William E. Carlson
Eugene J. McCarthy
Eugene J. McCarthy
Paul Wellstone
Wendell Anderson
Al Franken
Joan Anderson Growe
Hubert Humphrey III
Mark Dayton


  1. Anonymous on January 5, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    The headline is incredibly misleading. A “weak” performance is based on margin of victory or loss, not comparison to other candidates.

  2. Bill on January 5, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    Sounds like sour grapes to me. If this election had gone for Coleman you would be trying to convince me this is really the only democratic way to solve issues. How bold one is when their candidate is ahead.

  3. Eric Ostermeier on January 5, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    > The headline is incredibly misleading. A “weak” performance
    > is based on margin of victory or loss, not comparison to other
    > candidates.

    If that is your definition of the criteria, then Franken had the weakest possible margin of victory in state history for a US Senate candidate of either party.

  4. Anonymous on January 5, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    Bill – are you addressing me? If so, I’m not quite sure what you mean.

    Eric – That’s about true. So what? He unseated an incumbent – never an easy thing to do, regardless of the year. Coleman turned in a “weaker” performance, all the more embarrassing since he was the incumbent and (I believe) raised more money. You can bet that Senator-elect Franken won’t be crying into his beer about his weakness compared to President-elect Obama, nor will former Sen. Coleman be crowing about his strong performance compared to Sen. McCain.

  5. Eric Ostermeier on January 5, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    History and the political environment in which an election takes place matters if one is to draw comparisons and situate elections in their proper context. To learn the facts about what Coleman was facing in this election read my blog from late November:

    He may not be doing cartwheels in defeat, but his performance was historically strong under the circumstances.

  6. Anonymous on January 5, 2009 at 10:52 pm

    The context certainly matters – but I think the result matters a lot more. According to your data, Ann Wynia put up the second-strongest Senate performance in DFL history, and still got pretty well trounced. The “strong” performance didn’t help Wynia and didn’t help the Democrats. Strong candidates go a long ways towards making their own contexts, like Sen. Tim Johnson of SD, winning as a Democrat in 2002, a truly ugly year for Democrats.

  7. Eric Ferguson on January 6, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    The missing factor here is that Franken is the only one to have faced a strong third party challenger. I know of no polls asking Barkley voters how they would have voted in a two-way runoff, but from all I can tell, Barkley hurt Franken more than Coleman, so that throws the weakness of Franken’s win into question. A more valid comparison might be to other races with strong third parties, even if they weren’t senate races. Franken did better than other DFL candidates with a strong IP candidate on the ballot.

  8. Eric Ostermeier on January 6, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    > Franken did better than other DFL candidates with a strong IP
    > candidate on the ballot.

    Though that is largely countered by the exceedingly favorable partisan (pro-democrat) environment that Franken found himself in during the 2008 campaign (approximately 40 percent of Minnesotans identified themselves as Democrats at the time of the election (SurveyUSA), and just 25 percent as independents – much lower than the 35 to 40 percent independents reached just a few years prior). As such, I would argue, the relative weakness of Franken’s performance holds.

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