Body slam

Jesse Ventura turned out turned-off voters on Election Day, and upended the nation's political elite.


Micah L. Sifry
November 7, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

Even Jesse Ventura, the Navy Seal and professional wrestler-turned-talk radio host, small-town mayor and now, Minnesota's governor-elect, seemed at an uncharacteristic loss for words when asked to explain his stunning victory. "Ask them," he told reporters, meaning the voters, on the day after his upset election.

Looking at the voters is a good place to start. Ventura, the Reform Party candidate, won the three-way race against Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Hubert "Skip" Humphrey III by a vote of 37 to 34 to 29 percent, respectively. But the day before the election, the Star-Tribune/KMSP-TV Minnesota Poll showed him tied with Humphrey at 29 percent each, with Coleman leading at 36 percent. What happened?

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A huge surge of new voters, many of them newly enthusiastic young people, showed up at the polls. Minnesota allows voters to register as late as Election Day, and at one precinct in St. Paul, 120 of the more than 600 people who voted were new registrants. According to state election officials, turnout was comparable to a presidential election. Typically, about 53 percent of eligible voters come out for a midterm election in Minnesota, but estimates of Tuesday's turnout were running at 60 percent and higher. Twenty-eight percent of the people who voted for Ventura said they wouldn't have voted at all if he were not on the ballot, according to exit polls. And it was Ventura's mobilization of these "unlikely voters," as Salon reported a week ago, that made all the difference.

The shape of Ventura's vote was as important as its size. He did well with all age groups except those over 60, and won a whopping 46 percent of the 18- to 29-year-olds. (Note to MTV: Does this mean Generation X agrees with the Ventura radio ad where he declared, "The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin are the greatest rock bands of all time"?) He won strong pluralities from all income groups except those making over $100,000. Women were almost equally likely to vote for him as men, despite his macho stance. About the only group he did poorly with were people with postgraduate degrees, who along with the elderly strongly supported Humphrey, the only blocs to do so.

It is also telling that Ventura's vote, rooted in a majority of ballots cast by political independents, leaned distinctly to the left. He won a full one-third of Democrats voting, compared to 28 percent of the Republicans. And he got 44 percent of self-identified liberals, compared to just 29 percent of conservatives. This shows that Republican Coleman held on to more of his base, mainly by bashing gays and harping on his pro-life position, while Humphrey experienced a near total meltdown in the face of Ventura's working-class populism.

And the major party candidates had no idea what hit them. On Election Night, as local reports showed Ventura in the lead with half the votes counted, Humphrey told people at his nonvictory party, "We're just coming around the corners. I think they're going to be showing a Humphrey victory." Across town, Coleman was telling his supporters to "keep the faith." A day later, Dane Smith, the Star-Tribune's chief political reporter, said that local Democrats and Republicans had gone into hiding. "We can't find any of them today," he told NPR's "All Things Considered." "They're not answering their phones."

In some ways Ventura is the inverse of Ross Perot, about whom he has little nice to say (and Perot has been tellingly silent about his win). Ventura is sane, funny, self-deprecating, grounded in the reality of average people's lives, not a secluded billionaire surrounded by sycophants. He's a patriot but not an antiforeigner demagogue, a real libertarian who never tried to buy a politician or get a government subsidy, unlike Perot, who was a big donor to Nixon and other Washington insiders. And instead of preaching the politics of belt tightening as Perot has, Ventura's tune is the good time rock 'n' roll of a budget surplus.

Ventura's victory owes a lot to Minnesota's progressive campaign finance laws, which limited both of the major party candidates to spending just $2.1 million each -- keeping them from drowning Ventura out, and giving him enough money to get on the airwaves in the final two weeks. "I hope that this will show people what can be achieved when you can pare down the influence of money on the political system," said Todd Paulson, executive director for Minnesota's Common Cause. "It's the closest thing I've ever seen to a revolution."

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Apparently, the revolutionary character of Ventura's campaign has a lot of people freaked out, especially media elites, who keep telling us that there are only two flavors to choose from in politics, Bland A and Bland B. And their condescension has been open. Interviewing Ventura, NBC's Tom Brokaw asked him if he should be addressed as "Governor Jesse Ventura, or Governor Jesse 'The Body' Ventura." You could almost hear the snickers from the control room.

The New York Times' front-page story on his win couldn't resist poking fun at his roots in the pro-wrestling business either. Robert Scheer, a liberal columnist for the Los Angeles Times who's lost touch with his radical roots, said on his radio show on KCRW, "The people of Minnesota should be spanked for letting this happen." Even Hillary Rodham Clinton piled on with a disdainful reference to Ventura's "traveling road show." This isn't an attack on Ventura's lack of a detailed platform for what he will do as governor. It's a nose-held-high sneer at someone who didn't come up the conventional path, didn't go to an Ivy League school, likes to party and doesn't apologize for it -- and whose success just proved how narrow-minded the elites really are.

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"The conventional analysis we're fed is that people are happy with politics and they like the politicians they have," says Patrick Caddell, onetime political adviser to a host of maverick Democrats ranging from Jimmy Carter to Jerry Brown. "Jesse Ventura suggests that's not true. The fact that he won is like a can opener. It says to other people in other states: 'Why can't we have people like this?' It's a dangerous example. His candidacy represents a threat to the established order, and so it's not surprising to see elites try to marginalize him at every point."

One political leader who takes Ventura seriously and respectfully is Paul Wellstone, the senior senator from Minnesota, who has also run and won two populist campaigns for office. (He is also a longtime wrestler, albeit of the amateur college variety.) "What I most appreciate about his campaign and victory is the downright anti-establishment part of it," Wellstone told Salon in a phone interview. "The message was: 'Look,' you gatekeepers who supposedly decide who can run, and who is viable and who is serious and who can win, 'we're going to take you on.' I like that. I also appreciate the political reform part [of Ventura's message], which was very much for real." When I told him Robert Scheer wanted to "spank" Minnesota, Wellstone replied, "That's ridiculous. That's a huge mistake. That's the same elitism that looks down on people, and gets liberals into big trouble that they deserve to be in."

But he expressed some concerns about the content of the governor-elect's program, noting that populism has historically taken many forms, not all of them friendly. After acknowledging Ventura's opposition to corporate welfare, his support for public schools and his environmentalism, he pointed to some worries.

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"Please remember that during the campaign he also said to students in higher education, in community colleges, that if you're smart enough to get to college you're smart enough to pay for it. Community college students not needing help? Jeez! And he also said that he doesn't see a role for government to make child care more affordable. He's also talking about massive tax cuts while reducing class sizes. I'll be interested in seeing how you do that, how you invest in a commitment to children starting school ready to learn."

I also noted Ventura's announcement during the last weekend of the campaign that he opposed the idea of requiring government contractors to pay a "living wage," a hot issue in Minneapolis right now. "If those are the policies," Wellstone said with a growl, "I look forward to a vigorous debate." But Wellstone was looking forward to sitting down with Ventura's staff -- they've already called him to set up a meeting -- and working together on areas of common agreement.

In the meantime, the genie is out of the bottle -- and the two major parties are going to have a hell of a time stuffing it back in.

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Micah L. Sifry

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