It’s never easy to tell exactly what politicians are strong or weak candidates. Simple wins and losses are imperfect metrics influenced by factors outside of a candidate’s control. In lieu of this, it’s often useful to look at how down-ballot politicians compare to the top of the ticket. This year, there was plenty of variance in how Democrats performed versus Joe Biden, but one Democrat has stuck out as the worst performer relative to the President-elect: Ilhan Omar.
In her district, Minnesota’s 5th, she ran 24% behind Biden in terms of margin. This is the largest underperformance for a House candidate so far and has been the subject of considerable discussion. Some have defended Omar’s margin, saying that a left-wing third party candidate is to blame for her poor showing and that is unfair to compare her to the top of the ticket because of it.
But this misses the mark. The numbers in MN-05 are not favorable to Omar no matter how they’re construed. Her underperformance was substantial and likely shows she has substantially less popularity than Biden in this deep-blue district.
Third Parties Didn’t Matter
While Ilhan Omar did do 24% worse than Biden, it is true that a left-wing independent took nearly 10% of the vote. But this is not the sole reason for her performance. Left-wing independents were present in almost every single district in Minnesota and no Democrat underperformed like Omar. Below is a chart showing the share of the vote third parties got in each Minnesota Congressional District as well as how Democrats in those districts did compared to Biden. Omar’s performance sticks out like a sore thumb.
The high third-party vote share does not even come close to explaining Omar’s lag behind Biden. In reality, this third-party vote share was not even that much higher compared to other districts.
Furthermore, third-party performance does not arise in a vacuum. Spirited and well-funded campaigns help, but third-parties are often gain traction largely because of unpopular major party candidates. It’s not hard to picture some fairly liberal Biden voter registering their dissatisfaction with Omar by voting third-party. There’s no way to know for sure what caused people to vote third-party in MN-05, but in a deep blue district, it’s not hard to guess.
Was Omar Too Conservative?
However, some analysts have argued that the independent performed well because of his left-wing views. They argue that dissatisfaction with Omar had nothing to do with it. Essentially, voters chose him because he was more left-wing than Omar and they preferred that. But this argument is almost entirely wish-casting. Third-party candidates at the Congressional level have trouble getting voters to recognize their names, let alone any of their policies. Additionally, Omar is one of the most left-wing members of Congress and makes no secret of it. She is famous nationwide because of those views. It would be hard for voters to not know what she stands for.
The third-party candidate also ran as a member of the Legal Marijuana Now Party. This label would have communicated his left-wing views, but would not have been enough to draw progressive voters on its own. Omar is a staunch supporter of legal weed, so the party label alone would not have been enough to draw leftist voters away from one of the most prominent leftist politicians in the United States.
Now of course, it’s only fair to give Ilhan Omar the benefit of the doubt. What if every single voter that voted third-party went for her? Instead of winning 64-26 she wins 74-26. Much more impressive, but still a 15% underperformance from Biden’s 80-17 win the district. She would still register as one of the largest underperformers in the country.
Why is this the case? Because the Republican candidate got 30,000 more votes than Trump. For a candidate in a lopsided district, this is a robust over-performance. In a year that saw record low-amounts of ticket splitting, this kind of crossover support is noteworthy.
Omar’s drop in support compared to Biden was clearly not solely due to the third-party candidate. Many voters simply liked her much less than Biden and registered their dissatisfaction by voting for the GOP downballot.
This is not to say that Omar’s politics are a failure or that someone with her politics could never be successful in a swing district. None of this is a value judgment on her views. But the facts speak for themselves: she was much less appealing to voters in her district than Biden was.
A wise man once said that if you torture the data enough, it will confess to anything. But the amount of torture needed to make this data look good for Ilhan Omar would be likelier to land someone in front of the International Criminal Court than it would provide a correct conclusion about what happened.
Going forward, progressive groups should look at this as a learning opportunity. They should examine the “why?” of Ilhan Omar’s underperformance, not deny that it happened. Denial will leave them open to making the same mistakes. And more importantly, it would set them up for a rude awakening when a progressive Democrat is a nominee in a truly high-profile race in a swing district.