On January 4, 1999, Jesse Ventura will be sworn in as the new governor of Minnesota amid a media deluge not seen since the state hosted the Super Bowl. The traditional black-tie inaugural ball has been canceled in favor of a huge “People’s Celebration” to be held at the 18,000-seat Target Center in Minneapolis, with likely performances by Bob Dylan and others. Since winning a three-way race against Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Hubert “Skip” Humphrey 3d by a margin of 37-34-28, Ventura–who wants to be known as “The Mind” after years as “The Body”–has become a nationwide celebrity. He’s signed a six-figure book deal for a quickie biography, and a made-for-TV movie deal with NBC is said to be in the works. But so far there’s been little attention to the real significance of Ventura’s win: A working-class populist has figured out how to drive a monster truck through the Potemkin village known as two-party politics in America.
Right now, Ventura is basking in the afterglow. According to a poll taken the week after the election, 54 percent of the state’s voters said they would vote for him if the election were held then. Nearly a third said his Reform Party best represented their interests, compared with just 24 percent favoring the Democrats and 20 percent the Republicans. Even people over the age of 55, who tend to have the strongest party loyalties, favored Reform over the other two parties.
But winning candidates often see a postelection jump in their support. What’s really striking is the actual shape of Ventura’s base. He won a near-majority of 18-to-44-year-olds. Women voted for him almost as much as men. In terms of class, the exit polls, which show that he was favored by everyone except those making over $100,000, aren’t as illustrative as the geography of his vote.
“In the high-income professional suburbs, Jesse did poorly,” says Myron Orfield, a Democratic member of the Minnesota House and an expert on political demography and regional planning. “In the less affluent suburbs, which are full of households making less than $50,000 a year, often on two jobs or more, he did very well. He also won northeast Minneapolis, which is blue-collar land. And he did better in poor parts of the city than he did in the yuppie areas. The only place where the Democrats held their base was in the Iron Range, where he wasn’t that strong.”
Even more stunning, in a half-dozen suburban counties ringing Minneapolis-St. Paul to the north and west, Ventura won an absolute majority of the vote. All six of these counties–Anoka, Chisago, Isanti, McLeod, Sherburne and Wright–voted for Clinton over Dole in 1996. They are full of politically independent swing voters coveted by both parties. Indeed, Paul Wellstone spent a great deal of time in these counties during his 1996 re-election campaign. In each one, Ventura actually got more votes than Clinton.
If these aren’t signs of a political earthquake, I don’t know what is.
In recent years, political observers and pollsters like Thomas Edsall and Stanley Greenberg have argued that the only way for Democrats to win elections in these crucial swing districts is to pander to their conservative prejudices. There is a straight line that runs from Greenberg’s 1980s study of suburban Detroit’s blue-collar Macomb County to Bill Clinton’s positions on the death penalty and welfare.
But now Jesse Ventura has shown that an independent candidate can appeal to these same voters without having to charge to the right. While he made distrust of big government a central theme of his campaign, he also promised to defend and improve the biggest government program of all: public K-12 education. And he showed that voters will rally to a candidate who is forthrightly in favor of choice and gay rights–if he is “one of us” and not another “suit.” What remains to be seen is whether his professed opposition to subsidies for daycare and higher education will offend his working-family base, or if his connection to that base will lead him to temper those views.
In the meantime, Ventura’s victory has opened a whole new vein for presidential speculators. Could the national Reform Party pick the two-party lock on presidential politics in the same way that Ventura shocked the Democrats and Republicans in Minnesota? Could a socially liberal, fiscally conservative, anti-establishment, pro-campaign finance reform, working-class hero go all the way? The major parties would undoubtedly fight hard to exclude such a candidate from the debates, but in 2000 the Reform candidate will be the beneficiary of perhaps $18 million in public financing, which will insure some real exposure.
Ventura has vociferously ruled out such a bid in 2000, citing his promises to the voters of Minnesota. And the guy has to prove he can govern well before anyone will take him seriously beyond the state. But Ventura’s attitude toward the national Reform Party has clearly changed since his win. Beforehand, he told me that he wanted to “break off” from the party because its leaders weren’t serious about building a grassroots third party. “They have only focused on Ross Perot and the national level–all their other elections are just cannon fodder.” As leaders of the Minnesota Reform Party, Dean Barkley and Phil Madsen–key organizers of the Ventura campaign–had unsuccessfully battled the Dallas-based party over the issue of internal democracy. On Meet the Press, Ventura called for Perot to make room for “fresh blood” in time for 2000.
But now Barkley, perhaps Ventura’s closest adviser, says the Governor-elect’s position has “evolved” and no break is in the offing. “He wants to wait and see what Russ Verney [the party’s national chairman] and Perot have in mind with the nominating process. Hopefully, there will be a meeting with them so they can talk heart to heart about how to build the party,” Barkley says. “A viable national third party is still our goal.” It seems as if the Minnesotans think they may be able to turn the Reform Party into one.
Because it now has ballot status in only seventeen states (down from thirty-five before the fall elections), the party has announced that whoever wants its nomination will have to qualify as an independent presidential candidate in enough of the remaining states to win a hypothetical electoral-vote majority. That puts a premium on contenders with real grassroots appeal or the deep pockets to finance a state-by-state ballot drive. Stay tuned for more fireworks–maybe even a battle for control.