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After strong showing in 2018, Democrats may be heading into 2020 with an advantage in suburban Minnesota

Woodbury water tower
Nearly as many suburbanites as rural Minnesotans voted in the 2016 election.

The suburban voters who helped Democrats gain seats in Minnesota two years ago might be holding the line again as the presidential election nears.

A recent poll suggests that suburban voters in Minnesota are leaning Democratic nearly a year from Election Day. Fifty-one percent of suburban Minnesotans who say they are likely to vote said they are likely to vote for a Democratic candidate for president next November, compared with 33 percent for Donald Trump. Fifteen percent either answered “unsure,” or said they’d vote for a third party.

Likely suburban voters

Q: Thinking about the election in November 2020, which of the following best describes you?
A: Likely to vote for:
Notes: Responses shown do not include those who said they were not likely or not eligible to vote. Seven percent of respondents said they were undecided. Numbers do not add up to 100 percent due to rounding. Share of respondents shown with margin of error.
Source: University of Minnesota Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication survey, conducted by Strategic Research Group

The overall margin of error for the survey was 3.7 percent, though margins are larger when breaking down subgroups of the sample. The poll was conducted for the University of Minnesota Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication by Strategic Research Group, an Ohio-based strategic research firm. Results are based on 707 completed responses from a representative sample of Minnesotans who were invited to participate using an address-based approach. The responses were collected Oct. 2 through Oct. 31.

For the purposes of the survey, the suburbs were defined as anywhere in the seven-county Twin Cities metro, excluding the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

With rural Minnesota increasingly red and urban areas solidly blue, the suburbs hold the bulk of crucial swing voters, said Tim Lindberg, associate professor of American government at the University of Minnesota’s Morris campus. “It remains the one, mainly competitive area,” he said.

Nearly as many suburbanites as rural Minnesotans voted in the 2016 election. Each had nearly four times as many voters as Minneapolis and St. Paul combined. Those suburbs were key to Democrats winning back the Minnesota House in the 2018 midterms, and helped them win several statewide races, including for governor and the U.S. Senate.

The question for both parties is whether those gains will hold in a presidential election pitting Donald Trump against a Democrat still to be determined.

The vast majority of suburban survey respondents who reported they voted for Trump in 2016 said they still believe they made the right decision. Four percent regret their vote, according to the survey.

Voters up for grabs

Nationally and in Minnesota, suburban voters who live closer to the cities tend to vote Democratic, but the electorate becomes more evenly split in the middle-ring suburbs and more Republican in the outer ring closer to rural areas, said Robert Lang, a professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

Democrats have seen the suburbs as the one place where they can flip more voters to their side, Lindberg said. “I think that’s what the Democrats are starting to realize based on the evidence, that they’re better off trying to turn — to create — a new base and bring out voters who were sick and fed up with Trump in the suburbs rather than attempting to try to win back a few percentage of rural voters.”

Bret Humphries of Woodbury is one suburbanite whose vote is up for grabs. Humphries said he voted for Trump in 2016 but would rather not vote for him in the upcoming election. In fact, he’s not really sure who he’ll vote for.

“I wish there was a really good, strong third party,” said Humphries, 54. “I’m tired of both parties doing what’s best for the party and not what’s best for the country.” He said he would choose Joe Biden, a more centrist Democrat, over Trump, but wouldn’t vote for just any Democrat over Trump.

Suburban residents, like most Minnesotans, are enthusiastic about the election. Of those responding, at least 86 percent said they are likely to vote. Just over half said they are more enthusiastic about voting in the upcoming presidential election than in previous ones. That number is about the same across partisan lines.

“It’s really not an understatement to say that this might be the most important election of my life,” said Linda Vizenor, 63, of Inver Grove Heights. She previously has been mostly independent. She doesn’t know whom she’s voting for in 2020, but said she would never vote for Trump.

Vizenor said she hasn’t felt that politicians really represent her, and the parties are both “two sides of the same coin.”

For suburbanites who voted for Trump, 61 percent are more enthusiastic about the upcoming election, according to the survey.

Lang explains why that might be: “You don’t really have a candidate on the other side right now. It’s always hard to gauge enthusiasm when you have an amorphous character on one side and you’ve got a known candidate on the other side.”

For many partisan voters, staying at home Nov. 3 isn’t an option.

“Almost none of the partisans said they weren’t going to come out to vote,” Lindberg said of the survey results. “Almost all of them are like ‘I’m voting. One way or the other, I’m voting.’”

Cottage Grove resident Paul Virgin, 58, said going to the polls is important, but political engagement is unnerving in an age of polarization and opposite interpretation of the same facts.

“I’m going to participate,” he said, “but I’m scared to death of it.”

Caitlin Anderson and J.D. Duggan are students at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota. This story and the surveys cited were funded in part by an endowment in the name of the late Mitchell Charnley, a professor and expert in news reporting and broadcast journalism who died in 1991. 

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Theo Kozel on 12/19/2019 - 10:44 am.

    51 to 33 percent is “leaning”.

  2. Submitted by John Hoefs on 12/19/2019 - 10:49 am.

    Depends on which Democrat emerges to be the Candidate. If more centrist, Democrats will have better chance of winning suburbs than if the candidate is liberal left.

  3. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 12/19/2019 - 10:51 am.

    If I read the tea leaves correctly (I’m a suburban voter), this is just not a one election cycle move, but a serious shift to the blue end of the spectrum. It reflects the oft-repeated statement, “I didn’t leave the party, the party left me.”

  4. Submitted by George Beck on 12/19/2019 - 11:19 am.

    This will be a close election due to the electoral college. If the democrats present a candidate who supports ending private insurance and providing free college, they may well lose.

  5. Submitted by Mark Kulda on 12/19/2019 - 11:56 am.

    I seriously question any poll where people are asked whether or not they are going to vote for Trump. According to all the preliminary polls in 2016 AND the exit polls in November of 2016, he was going to lose. But he won. I conclude this is because people in polls are not going to admit they will (or did) vote for him. Because the methodology can’t weed out people who lie to the pollsters, then I don’t think anybody can draw any conclusions about Trump polling.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/19/2019 - 01:56 pm.

      Actually, the polls were pretty accurate. The final polls had Trump losing by 2 or 3 percent, which is where it ended up. Unfortunately, we have an electoral system where some votes count more than others.

  6. Submitted by Gary Derong on 12/19/2019 - 05:55 pm.

    Washington County is regarded by national pollsters as the barometer of Minnesota for the 2020 election. Similarly, in the critically important state of Wisconsin, pollsters will be watching returns in Sauk County, a suburban/rural county on the fringe of the Madison metro area.

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