Key takeaways from 2018 straw polls, precinct caucuses

PHOTO: R. Nial Bradshaw, Flickr CC

Last night I joined a relatively small group of Minnesotans in attending my local party precinct caucus. I caucus with the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, so we met at the Balsam Township Hall. The Republicans met in Grand Rapids at the middle school.

Six people attended my caucus, including myself. I was prepared to remark that perhaps Democrats aren’t set up very well for the next election after all until I saw that, statewide, Republican turnout was considerably worse.

So I have two takeaways. DFLers do indeed have more enthusiasm at this stage of the process, and the precinct caucus system is arguably outdated and out-of-touch with how people approach politics nowadays.

Thus the results of the straw poll taken in both the GOP and DFL parties should be understood as a snapshot of party activists who will participate in the endorsement process, not necessarily broad popular support. A party endorsement is one way for a candidate to gain broad popular support in the primary. The primary determines who appears on November’s ballot.

DFL governor straw poll

In that regard, we saw Congressman Tim Walz win the DFL straw poll with almost 31 percent of the vote. State Auditor Rebecca Otto finished second with more than 20 percent of the vote. The other four major candidates found themselves lagging in the teens and single digits.

These incomplete results from early Wednesday, Feb. 7, show Tim Walz leading the DFL straw poll and DFL turnout approaching triple the GOP turnout. Click here for updates.

Big takeaways from the DFL side:

  • Walz had statewide strength, which propelled his win. He started as the frontrunner. He remains the frontrunner.
  • Otto also had statewide strength, and pulled off a surprising win in MN-8, where mining vs. environment arguments have run hot. Otto seems to have consolidated the most support among the mining skeptical candidates in the DFL and benefited from division among pro-mining voters. She also benefits from winning statewide three times.
  • Erin Murphy did what she had to do. She outpaced her former Speaker Paul Thissen, her current State House colleague Tina Liebling, and fellow St. Paulite Chris Coleman. If a DFLer isn’t with Walz or Otto, they’re probably going to give Murphy a good look. Having watched this thing from afar I don’t think any candidate outworked Erin Murphy. But she still has a long way to go.
  • Coleman underperformed and lost St. Paul.
  • Thissen *really* underperformed.
  • Liebling was probably trailing the pack going in and didn’t really advance much, though did not finish last. She’s trying to position herself as the most liberal candidate, though those votes seem to be tracking toward Otto.

In terms of the endorsement, it’s now Walz, Otto and maybe Erin Murphy in the mix. The other candidates have a lot to prove in local conventions if they stay in the race.

GOP governor straw poll

On the Republican side, Hennepin County Commissioner and 2014 GOP nominee Jeff Johnson swamped the straw poll with more than 45 percent support. Three other major candidates and several minor candidates split the rest of the vote, no one else achieving 20 percent.

The GOP straw poll results aren’t broken down by Congressional District, but Johnson appeared to have statewide strength.

Key takeaways from the GOP side:

  • This result is incomplete because former Gov. Tim Pawlenty seems to be preparing to run for his old job. Pawlenty could be a major force at the convention or in a GOP primary. Then again, as I wrote this week, Pawlenty also must reckon with criticism over his recent job as a Wall Street lobbyist and some of the controversial aspects of his time in the governor’s office. We don’t know what his popular support would be yet, which is probably why he’s waiting until after this straw poll to announce.
  • A strong statewide win for Johnson, significant because it didn’t give much oxygen to the other candidates.
  • Keith Downey, the former Minnesota GOP chair, probably needed to do better.
  • Mary Giuliani Stephens, a later addition to the race, still isn’t well known.
  • The far right outsider Phillip Parrish could break out if anti-establishment forces have their way.
  • If Pawlenty enters a primary, can any of these candidates outgun him?

MN-8 DFL endorsement

In the endorsement battle for MN-8, Rick Nolan and challenger Leah Phifer didn’t have the benefit of a straw poll to show their levels of support. Rather, we’ll pick up on that as county unit delegates are elected for the Congressional District convention in April.

That said, the DFL did report congressional district results in the governor’s race. These numbers are not yet complete. Nevertheless, combine the Wednesday morning level of support for anti-copper mining candidates Tina Liebling and Rebecca Otto in the 8th, and you get 39 percent. That number is almost enough to block a endorsement of Rick Nolan. *Almost* But getting that to translate into delegates is another matter. And Phifer’s and Nolan’s coalitions are probably more complex than this crude measure.

Upcoming county unit conventions determine the outcome of the endorsement fight in April. This process favors Nolan. In any event, this endorsement battle could become something, or it could fizzle.


  1. According to the MN Post, the turnout for the DFL was actually a record for a non-presidential year, eclipsing 2014 and 2010.

    Interviews with GOP caucus attendees showed a degree of negativity about Pawlenty that surprised me. He did receive some positive reviews, but negative comments were very bitter. This is, of course, not polling, and people could not vote for Pawlenty and have it count, and I certainly don’t know the whole story of anything going on in the GOP, but I suspect that this is evidence of even further rightward drift among the people who actually are grass root GOP stalwarts who attend caucuses and are reliable primary voters, although Pawlenty himself was considered quite right wing back in 2002. Of course, in a primary, Pawlenty would have a tremendous advantage in name recognition, despite Johnson’s previous run in 2014. Perhaps some of our regular conservative responders here have a better idea of what the feelings are about Pawlenty among GOP rank and file.

  2. No scientific proof but, seems Northern out state didn’t really show up for the DFL. Does anyone have numbers that agree or disagree with this take?

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