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Can Trump win Minnesota by increasing turnout in small counties?

Trump’s campaign recently unveiled a strategy of focusing on the smallest 20 percent of counties in certain swing states.

Turnout in Minnesota’s smallest counties averaged only 69 percent, compared to statewide turnout of about 75 percent.
In 2016, Donald Trump came closer than any Republican in recent memory to winning Minnesota, a state that hasn’t favored a Republican for president since Richard Nixon in 1972.

As the president’s re-election campaign looks toward 2020, it’s hoping to win Minnesota and a handful of swing states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that could decide the election. One strategy it plans to employ is one not typically used by presidential hopefuls: focusing on the smaller counties most campaigns overlook.

The plan was outlined by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, campaign manager Brad Parscale and others last week, according to Axios. 

“Tiny counties traditionally overlooked by candidates helped deliver Trump his 2016 victories in states like Wisconsin (where the smallest 48 counties = 22% of the statewide vote) and Pennsylvania (where the smallest 45 counties = 20% of the statewide vote),” the outlet reported.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Minnesota, albeit narrowly, by running up votes in the Twin Cities metro. Can Trump win Minnesota in 2020 by doing the reverse?

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Where voters live

To understand this strategy, it helps to take a quick look at vote counts by Minnesota region.

12 percent of votes statewide in the 2016 presidential race came from the Twin Cities — Minneapolis and St. Paul. Trump struggled there.

44 percent came from the Twin Cities suburbs, here defined as the seven-county Twin Cities metro area minus Minneapolis and St. Paul. Hillary Clinton won in the suburbs by a more narrow margin, but 2018 election results and more recent polls suggest Trump isn’t all that popular in the ’burbs.

Another 44 percent came from Greater Minnesota, defined here as the 80 counties outside the metro area. Trump won by a significant margin there.

Votes for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump by Minnesota region, 2016
Source: Minnesota Secretary of State

The 20 percent

If you were the Trump campaign looking to win over Minnesotans, where would you try to pick up votes?

Probably Greater Minnesota. While there aren’t a lot of votes in many of the counties outside the metro area relative to the Twin Cities, there is a lot of room for improvement in voter turnout in those counties, said Eric Ostermeier, a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the author of Smart Politics.

Axios reported the Trump campaign is looking to increase turnout in counties that comprised about 20 percent of the population in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

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Ostermeier applied that metric to Minnesota, looking at the smallest counties that make up about a fifth of our state’s population. There are 61 of them, ranging from Traverse County (pop: 3,308) to McLeod (population 35,873).

Trump carried 58 of those 61 counties, but their turnout averaged only 69 percent, compared to statewide turnout of about 75 percent, Ostermeier said.

Compare that to the seven-county Twin Cities area, where most counties went for Clinton and turnout was above 75 percent.

“There is, I think, greater room for improvement in voter turnout in Trump counties versus Clinton counties,” Ostermeier said.

It’s conceivable that turnout in smaller, low-turnout counties could inch up as far as 70 to 75 percent — enough to potentially deliver a victory to Trump. Less likely is for voter turnout in metro-area counties to increase to 85 or 90 percent.

Overcoming disadvantage

There are a few factors that could stymie the strategy. First, some people who voted for Trump in 2016 may not do so again.

“The flipping of votes from Republican to Democratic nominee X could ultimately be a bigger factor than any potential increase we see in voter turnout,” Ostermeier said.

Second, the Democrats could nominate someone more popular than Hillary Clinton. In one sense, that wouldn’t be hard. Clinton was uniquely unpopular in Greater Minnesota, receiving only about 35 percent of votes in the region (Al Franken got 39 percent in 2008).

But voters in Greater Minnesota have historically favored moderate Democrats, as their votes for Amy Klobuchar and Tim Walz would suggest. It’s possible the average Greater Minnesota voter won’t be interested in a party they perceive as moving to the left — or a candidate that is further left.

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“The center of the Democratic Party has moved further to the left than in 2016, so that could nullify any personal appeal (a Democratic candidate) may have among those voters just because of a greater turnoff to the Democratic party overall,” Ostermeier said.

Another factor is new voters who have turned 18 since the 2016 election. A large share of young people who vote will likely vote for the Democratic nominee. But the open question is how many of them will actually vote (historically, not all that many).

Even if the Trump campaign can mobilize older voters who didn’t turn out in 2016 to get out and vote next year, it might not overcome the young voter influx in 2020, Ostermeier said.

As to whether the small counties strategy is worth pursuing, Ostermeier says he’s not sure.

“If it is successful in driving turnout in those counties, I don’t think it can overcome the other factors and flip the state for the Republicans,” he said.

But the Trump campaign is bullish on its odds for victory in Minnesota.

“The RNC and Trump Campaign have invested over $350 million to develop a sophisticated data operation to identify voters in key states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin. As a result, we have a huge advantage over the Democrats and will help elect Republicans up and down the ballot,” Trump Victory spokesperson Samantha Cotten said in an emailed statement.