As a recent SurveyUSA poll showed Norm Coleman's lead over both Al Franken and Mike Cerisi down to low single digits, the question emerges as to whether or not the introduction of a viable third party candidate in the race could influence the outcome.
In two of the past three Minnesota U.S. Senate races (2000, 2002), votes for third party candidates were greater than the margin of victory in the race. In fact, third party support in Senate races in Minnesota since 1996 is greater than any other of the dozen states in the Midwest.
Third party candidates have averaged 5.9 percent of the vote in the Gopher State, with Indiana coming in second at 4.2 percent. No other state averages even half the turnout for third party candidates than in Minnesota.
Minnesota also leads the Midwest in third party turnout for President (7.3 percent), U.S. House candidates (4.2 percent), and gubernatorial candidates (21.5 percent) since 1996.
The conventional wisdom is that third party candidates leaning to the left (Green, Independence) will hurt the DFL nominee more than right-leaning third party candidates (Constitution) will hurt the Republican nominee. Support for the former has been much stronger in Minnesota U.S. Senate elections than for the latter, but, in 2008, the strength of third party candidacies may hinge on whether Al Franken or Mike Ciresi is the DFL nominee. Franken—because he is a newcomer with a non-traditional political pedigree—may be more able to attract those voters who would normally abandon a major party nominee than Ciresi (a lawyer, though not a career politician by any means).
The third party factor could just be the slight edge Norm Coleman needs to retain his Senate seat for a second term.