A conventional wisdom has settled upon the DFL side of the governor’s race, that state Rep. Erin Murphy is lagging behind Attorney General Lori Swanson and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz despite winning the party endorsement at the June state convention.

It’s an easy case to make: Many rank-and-file Minnesota DFLers don’t know who she is, and she doesn’t have the money to buy the kind of advertising needed to raise her name recognition.

But there’s a case to be made that she’s still in the hunt.

DFL operative turned public relations pro Todd Rapp showed me a turnout model for the DFL primary, dividing the state into nine geographic regions. We’re all ballparking the candidates’ outcomes in each region, but what’s more important is that it’s a useful conceptual tool for thinking about the race in geographic terms. In this analysis, the candidate favored by the metro is going to be tough to beat, which presumably is good news for Murphy, a St. Paul lawmaker and a progressive woman.

But what about those polls? At least two internal polls show Swanson leading, with Murphy a distant third. Rapp is dubious about primary polling, citing the challenge of getting trustworthy results. Because so few Minnesotans can be counted on to vote in a primary, to get a decent sample size you have to talk to 4,000 people. That’s very expensive.

Aside from polls, there is another gauge of the race that shows Murphy trailing badly: Google Trends, which analyzes a percentage of Google web searches to help us understand who has web energy.

A DFL operative not involved in the governor’s race put it this way: “If she never shows a spike in Google Trends or polling, man, a Murphy surge would have to fly in the face of all data.”

On the Republican side, the Johnson camp is convinced there’s a backlash to the negative ad that former Gov. Tim Pawlenty is running against him. Two local TV newscasters critiqued the ad for being misleading.

The problem is that when people don’t know who you are, still a struggle for Johnson, you’re susceptible to getting defined by your opponents’ attack ads.

Moreover, Johnson had a moment when he got some press in response to the Pawlenty ad. But instead of hitting back, he tried to offer up a point-by-point refutation of the Pawlenty ad, undergirded by bemused incredulity that anyone would think Jeff Johnson is a tax-and-spend liberal. But the risk is that a lot of Republican primary voters don’t know who he is at all, so they’ll believe the ad.

As the adage goes: If you’re explaining, you’re losing.

If Pawlenty wins the August primary, he’ll get some help from his old friends. The Republican Governors Association, where Pawlenty was once vice chair, announced it is sitting on a record-breaking $87.5 million, the most cash on hand in the history of the organization, ready to deploy it on behalf of Republicans like Pawlenty.


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