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What the report on Democrats’ troubles in ‘factory towns’ means for Minnesota

In some ways, Minnesota is an outlier, in that it was one of two Midwestern states that shifted overall toward Democrats in recent elections. 

Downtown St. Cloud
Downtown St. Cloud

Sure, Democrats lost political ground in rural, agricultural areas of the Midwest during the Trump era. But it’s the losses in many smaller and mid-size cities that the party should worry about.

That’s the takeaway, anyway, from a new report written by the liberal groups American Family Voices and 21st Century Democrats, which details huge Republican gains in what the group deems “factory towns” in the Midwest and the Rust Belt that rely on manufacturing as a key industry. These areas hold a significant number of voters, enough in some places to outweigh Democrats’ improved performance in major suburbs and big cities.

“The changes and the struggles (of Democrats) tend to be focused on urban vs the rural,” said John Pouland, an advisory board member for the 21st Century group. “But I think the report showed — that leaves out a large chunk of Americans. Many, many towns are neither urban or rural.”

The report looks at 853 counties across 10 states, including Minnesota, in an effort to highlight a weak spot for Democrats — and a strength for Republicans. The top example of a “factory town” county the organization identified in Minnesota was Stearns County, home to much of St. Cloud.

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The report described “factory town” voters leaving for the GOP in droves as “the biggest electoral earthquake of the last decade.” In those 853 counties — in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and upstate New York — Democratic vote losses between 2012 and 2020 “swamped” the party’s gains in big cities and suburbs by a two-to-one-margin.

Democrats made some gains outside major metro areas, picking up votes in counties dominated by colleges or universities. But they’re not enough to offset some losses in truly rural areas and an enormous defection of voters in small and midsize manufacturing counties. “The central story our report tells is that the hit we took in small and midsized manufacturing counties was the biggest reason Trump won the presidency in 2016 and almost did it again in 2020,” the report says.

Richard J. Martin
Barack Obama won eight of those 10 states in 2012 when he beat Mitt Romney, but Hillary Clinton won just three of them in her loss to Donald Trump in 2016. President Joe Biden won six of them against Trump in 2020 en route to the White House.

While the reasons for those shifts are many and complex, the report pins some of the losses on declining union rates and health outcomes. It also found that the decline in support for Democrats was often worse in areas that lost more manufacturing jobs. The result is that even if Democrats keep suburban voters in their fold, the party won’t be able to protect its majorities in Congress while hemorrhaging voters in “factory town” counties, the report says. 

The report authors say mid-size manufacturing counties are places in which manufacturing makes up at least 13 percent of employment — the U.S. average is about 9 percent — and include a city of 35,000. A small manufacturing county is defined as a place with 13 percent manufacturing employment but no cities of 35,000 or more people, which the report says are often “mischaracterized” as rural.

Large metropolitan counties are defined as counties that include cities with at least 200,000 people and diversified economies, and suburban counties include “bedroom communities” but also counties that border large cities with a high concentration of service industry jobs and relatively few manufacturing jobs.

Republicans have won over huge swaths of voters in Greater Minnesota since 2012. The GOP now controls most state Senate seats outside of the Twin Cities metro, with the exception of a few larger outstate urban centers like Duluth, Mankato, St. Cloud and Moorhead. Biden won 13 of Minnesota’s 87 counties compared to Obama’s 42 in 2008 and 28 in 2012. Clinton won just nine.

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The 21st Century Democrats said Stearns County in central Minnesota was their top example of a “factory town” county where Democrats had their biggest vote loss in presidential elections. Stearns County certainly has a history of manufacturing. Electrolux closed its St. Cloud plant, where workers made freezers, in 2019. 

Current employment statistics show manufacturing employs about 14 percent of people in the St. Cloud metro area — which includes two counties.

Stearns County is generally conservative, but it appears to have swung further toward Republicans in recent election cycles. In 2012, Romney got 54.8 percent of the vote in the county and beat Obama by more than 9,000 votes. In 2016, Trump won nearly 60 percent of the vote and beat Clinton by about 22,000 votes. Four years later, Trump won again, by roughly 19,000 votes.

“Minnesota is doing a better job of maintaining Democratic support, yet there’s still opportunity in places like Stearns County to not just improve our positions but obviously cut our losses,” said Pouland, the 21st Century Democrats’ advisory board member. “If you can be more competitive in all counties like Stearns County it will help you win races statewide as well as regional, district-wide.”

Jim Cottrill, who chairs the political science department at St. Cloud State University, said Trump was able to tap into anger in voters who may have lost a job, including by advocating for anti-immigrant policies and promoting the idea that other countries were taking advantage of the U.S. in trade. Cottrill said it can be tough for people in manufacturing to find new work in the St. Cloud area outside of the service industry. 

He also said Stearns County and the St. Cloud area has become more polarized — between voters in more conservative areas outside of the city and those in town.

Richard J. Martin
But Stearns isn’t a perfect fit for what many people think might be a “factory town” county. There are large parts of the county that are agricultural areas, and it includes St. Cloud State University as well as Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict. The report says Democrats made gains in “college counties.” 

Democrats have improved their performance in St. Cloud lately. DFL state Sen. Aric Putnam, a college professor, narrowly defeated Republican Jerry Relph in 2020 in a district that includes St. Cloud and chunks of Stearns County.

Another top “factory town” county cited by the 21st Century group was Kandiyohi, which relies on food manufacturing and where Romney won by 1,435 votes in 2012 and Trump won by a 5,997-vote margin in 2020. St. Louis County was another “factory town” county. Romney lost the northern Minnesotan county by 34,247 votes in 2012 while Trump lost by 18,687 in 2020.

The report says Minnesota is an outlier in some ways. Along with Illinois, it was the only state that shifted overall toward Democrats, who made gains in the Twin Cities and its suburbs, which make up a large and growing share of the electorate

The report says of the 10 states they studied, only Minnesota had a net gain in union members from 2010 to 2020, which they took as one evidence point for why Democrats in the state are outpacing counterparts in states like Wisconsin and Ohio. It’s not that Minnesota Democrats aren’t losing ground to the GOP outside of the Twin Cities metro, noted Pouland, “they’re not losing (voters) by the same margin that they are in Iowa.”

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