Minnesotans like to think of themselves as politically sophisticated, and it’s not unreasonable given all the local elected officials and operatives who have reached the highest levels of American politics.

Although Minnesotans are certainly more civically engaged than most — a perennial leader in voter turnout, for instance — that does not make them immune from choosing candidates for a less than lofty reason: They recognize the name.

Campaigns call it “name ID,” and it can be a powerful factor in elections.

The August primary will be a big test of the salience of name ID. Political insiders who are caught up in the races and have known the candidates for years often forget that the average Minnesotan knows much less about the candidates. Simple name familiarity is wildly underestimated as a force in politics.

The data are clear, said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist who studies American elections. “You will feel more comfortable voting for someone whose name you recognize than a name you don’t know,” he said.

Which brings us to the DFL primary in the governor’s race.

Two sets of internal polls that I saw last week give us a portrait of the race, with Attorney General Lori Swanson opening a measurable lead. A Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll, for instance, has Swanson at 37 percent to 29 percent for U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, and 17 percent for state Rep. Erin Murphy. The poll was conducted for an outfit called Minnesota Victory PAC, which is a Walz-aligned group.

Swanson holds a 33-point name ID advantage over Murphy, the DFL-endorsed candidate who was known to fewer than half of respondents.

Swanson has been on TV announcing consumer-oriented lawsuits. She’s been on the statewide ballot three times.

If you dive a little deeper into the MVP poll, you’ll see the numbers move when you provide positive information about the candidates, with Walz winning handily when you tell the respondents a bunch of nice things about him. (Duh.) Still and all, the poll suggests that with $1M in TV, digital and mail advertising, Walz can win. Although you can say the same about the other candidates.

“There’s a path for both Walz and Murphy if they can get the resources to get introduced to DFL primary voters,” said a DFL operative familiar with the MVP effort.

The problem is the shortage of both time and money to introduce themselves to voters before a mid-August primary.

Also in the poll: DFL voters are looking ahead to Tim Pawlenty and fear him. Nearly 80 percent said ability to beat Pawlenty is a “very important” characteristic in their choice of a DFL candidate.

Why do they fear him? Probably because they know his name.


J. Patrick Coolican 651-925-5042 Twitter: @jpcoolican patrick.coolican@startribune.com