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Can the DFL Win a Gubernatorial Election with a Democrat in the White House?

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DFL / Democratic Party has won only 12 percent of gubernatorial races in state history with a Democratic President in Washington

After Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty announced he would not seek a third term early last summer, the list of DFL candidates began to balloon to its current double-digit tally of hopefuls.

The Democratic Party considers the Minnesota open gubernatorial race one of its best chances for a pick-up in 2010, and most political prognosticators currently list the race in the "toss-up" category (e.g. Larry Sabato, Stu Rothenberg, Congressional Quarterly).

But a victory by the DFL in 2010, even in an open-seat race, would be extremely rare when viewed in a historical context, and under a particular political lens: since 1857, Minnesotans have elected a Democrat (or DFL) candidate to the governor's mansion in just 12 percent of gubernatorial contests with a Democrat in the White House, or 3 of 25 races.

No doubt the Republican Party of Minnesota is salivating over this statistic - particularly given the fact the national approval ratings of the current Democratic President, Barack Obama, have been hovering at or below the 50 percent mark in the vast majority of public opinion polls released since mid-November.

The last DFLer to win a governor's race while a Democrat was in the White House was Karl Rolvaag, some 47 years ago in 1962 when John F. Kennedy was finishing up his second year in office.

Prior to that, only Winfield Hammond (1914, with Woodrow Wilson in office) and Henry Sibley (1857, with James Buchanan in office) managed to win the state for the Democratic Party.

That's it - that's the entire list.

It should be noted that the Republican Party had historically dominated Minnesota politics (and the Upper Midwest generally) until the middle of the 20th Century. Overall, Republicans have won 70 percent of Minnesota gubernatorial elections since statehood (45 of 64), with Democrats / DFLers winning 14 and third parties winning 5 races.

That means 11 of the 14 gubernatorial elections that the DFL or Democratic parties have managed to win in the Gopher State across the past 150+ years have taken place with a Republican in the White House.

Two of these victories took place under Ronald Reagan (Rudy Perpich twice), with one under Gerald Ford (Wendell Anderson), one under Richard Nixon (Wendell Anderson), three under Dwight Eisenhower (Orville Freeman three times), three under Teddy Roosevelt (John Johnson three times), and one under William McKinley (John Lind).

DFL / Democratic Gubernatorial Victors by Presidential Administration, 1857-2006

Year
Winner
President
1986
Rudy Perpich
Reagan
1982
Rudy Perpich
Reagan
1974
Wendell Anderson
Ford
1970
Wendell Anderson
Nixon
1962
Karl Rolvaag
Kennedy
1958
Orville Freeman
Eisenhower
1956
Orville Freeman
Eisenhower
1954
Orville Freeman
Eisenhower
1914
Winfield Hammond
Wilson
1908
John Johnson
T. Roosevelt
1906
John Johnson
T. Roosevelt
1904
John Johnson
T. Roosevelt
1898
John Lind*
McKinley
1857
Henry Sibley
Buchanan
* John Lind was the Democrat-People's Party nominee for Governor. All other winners prior to 1944 were elected under the Democratic Party banner. All those after 1944 were DFLers. Data compiled by Smart Politics.

Buyer's Remorse?

What is particularly interesting is that Democrats have won only 3 of 25 gubernatorial elections with a Democrat in the White House despite the fact that the state had most recently voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in 13 of these instances.

In fact, Democrats have currently lost 13 of the last 14 Minnesota gubernatorial elections with a Democrat in the White House, after voting for the Democrat in that year's (or the most recent) presidential contest: in 1934, 1936, 1938, 1940, 1942, 1944, 1946, 1948, 1950, 1966, 1978, 1994, and 1998.

Only Rolvaag's 1962 victory saw Gopher State residents turn to a Democrat for the chief executive of Minnesota after helping to elect a Democrat to be the chief executive of the United States during this 70+ year span.

Minnesota Gubernatorial Election Winners With a Democrat in the White House, 1857-2006

Year
Winner
Party
President
1998*
Jesse Ventura
Reform
Clinton
1994*
Arne Carlson
GOP
Clinton
1978*
Al Quie
GOP
Carter
1966*
Harold LeVander
GOP
L. Johnson
1962*
Karl Rolvaag
DFL
Kennedy
1952
C. Elmer Anderson
GOP
Truman
1950*
Luther Youngdahl
GOP
Truman
1948*
Luther Youngdahl
GOP
Truman
1946*
Luther Youngdahl
GOP
Truman
1944*
Edward Thye
GOP
F. Roosevelt
1942*
Harold Stassen
GOP
F. Roosevelt
1940*
Harold Stassen
GOP
F. Roosevelt
1938*
Harold Stassen
GOP
F. Roosevelt
1936*
Elmer Benson
Farmer-Labor
F. Roosevelt
1934*
Floyd Olson
Farmer-Labor
F. Roosevelt
1920
Jacob A.O. Preus
GOP
Wilson
1918
J.A.A. Burnquist
GOP
Wilson
1916
J.A.A. Burnquist
GOP
Wilson
1914
Winfield Hammond
Democrat
Wilson
1896
David Clough
GOP
Cleveland
1894
Knute Nelson
GOP
Cleveland
1888
William Merrian
GOP
Cleveland
1886
Andrew McGill
GOP
Cleveland
1859
Alexander Ramsey
GOP
Buchanan
1857
Henry Sibley
Democrat
Buchanan
* Indicates election year in which Minnesotans had voted into office a Democratic president in the most recent presidential election. Note: there was no Democratic Party nominee in the 1936 gubernatorial contest. Data compiled by Smart Politics.

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4 Comments


  • Interesting stat, but how much sense does it make to use pre-WWII data to draw a conclusion? Modern political campaigns have changed so drastically since then that it's a pretty rare case where a turn-of-the-century campaign has much relevence.

  • > Interesting stat, but how much sense does it make to use
    > pre-WWII data to draw a conclusion?

    That's a fair point, but look what happens to the data in that case -- if you only look at post-WWII results the Dem/DFL success rate w/Democrats in the White House drops from 12 percent (3 of 25 races) to 11 percent (1 of 9 races).

  • Why do you not count the two Farmer-Labor governors during FDR?

  • > Why do you not count the two Farmer-Labor governors during
    > FDR?

    Because in all but one gubernatorial election from the 1922 through 1942 there was a separate Democratic Party candidate on the ballot.

  • Leave a comment


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