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Was Trump right: Could Minnesota flip in 2020?

There are definite signs that this most Democratic of states in 2018 could finally turn Republican, following the path of Wisconsin and other Midwestern states.

There are signs that Minnesota is ready to flip and Trump may not be wrong in his 2020 prediction.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Donald Trump declared in his recent Duluth visit that he could flip Minnesota in 2020. Was this more exaggeration by him or is it a possibility? The simple answer is a little of both, but there are definite signs that this most Democratic of states in 2018 could finally turn Republican, following the path of Wisconsin and other Midwestern states. 

schultz portrait
David Schultz

Minnesota is thought of as the liberal state of Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale, Paul Wellstone, and Al Franken. It is the most reliable Democrat state when it comes to the presidency; the last time it voted Republican was for Richard Nixon in 1972. Tim Pawlenty in 2006 was the last Republican to win a statewide election in Minnesota.

Minnesota has become a microcosm of national politics, and there are many signs that the state is turning Republican. Since 1999, the Minnesota House of Representatives has been controlled by Republicans 14 out of 20 years. Since 2010 party control of the state Senate has flipped three times. Since 1999 a Democrat has controlled the governorship only eight years out of 20. When Democrat Mark Dayton won the governorship in 2010 he was the first of his party to win that office in Minnesota since 1986. This shift in party control at the state level mirrors the same at the national level.

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In 2016 Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 45,000 votes — the closest presidential race in the state since 1984, when Walter Mondale barely beat Ronald Reagan. Clinton’s close victory should not have been a surprise – exit polls put Minnesota at 37 percent to 35 percent in terms of Democratic/Republican affiliation, similar to the 36 percent to 33 percent split nationally.

From 2008 through the 2012 and then into the 2016 presidential elections, the actual number of votes and the percentage of votes received by the Democratic candidate declined in Minnesota. In 2008 Barack Obama received 1,573,454 votes compared to John McCain’s 1,275,409 – a difference of 298,045. In 2012 the gap between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney narrowed to 225,942. Then in 2016 it was 44,765 between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – a steady narrowing of the gap between the Democratic and Republican candidate.

Obama won 42 Minnesota counties in 2008

In 2008, of the 87 counties in Minnesota, Obama won 42 of them. In 2012, Obama won 28, and in 2016 Clinton only won nine counties. In comparison, in the 2014 gubernatorial election, the Democrat, Dayton, won 34 counties. Nationally in 2016, Trump won 2,626 counties and Clinton 487. Mostly nationally and in Minnesota, Clinton won mainly the urban counties.

As with nationally, the Democrat’s base appears to be eroding, contracting to simply urban areas. The reasons are multifaceted. There is the Democratic appeal to educated urban liberals, often more affluent who look down on or disdain as stupid their rural and suburban counterparts, or those who are working class because they do not share their same interests or lifestyle preferences. There is also the failure of both parties to pay attention to the class and economic concerns of white-working class America. They abandoned class for identity politics. Democrats seem also to have a one-size-fits-all campaign strategy that works well with urban populations but which is not tailored to the suburbs and rural areas.

Democrats have also embraced a “demographics with destiny” argument that often assumes that history in on their side and that eventually voters will return to their senses and vote for them. Finally, Republicans have well exploited the economic and cultural fears of rural, suburban, working class America, offering a narrative resonates with those who feel ignored. All this is true nationally, and is being played out too in Minnesota.

Competitive congressional races

Finally one can point to competitive congressional races as a possible sign of Minnesota ready to flip. There is an open race for governor and two U.S. senators up for election. While Amy Klobuchar is favored to win, Tina Smith – who replaced Al Franken after he resigned – faces a tough election and is no shoo-in. Nationally there are only about 25 swing House seats in the country, but four of them are in Minnesota. Two of them–Minnesota’s First and Eighth – are currently held by Democrats Tim Walz and Rick Nolan, and neither are running for re-election. These are open seats that have flipped party control over the years and are leaning Republican; both went for Trump in 2016. There are two other House seats, the second and third, respectively held by Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen, that are rated competitive by the Cook Report, but still leaning Republican.

It is possible to argue that Clinton’s narrow victory in Minnesota in 2016 was a fluke – a product of her being a bad candidate or a terrible campaign strategy where after her caucus loss to Bernie Sanders she failed to return to Minnesota to ask for votes. But there are also signs that Minnesota is ready to flip and Trump may not be wrong in his 2020 prediction.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science. His latest book is “Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter.” He blogs at Schultz’s Take.

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