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Can Trump win Minnesota by increasing turnout in small counties?

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?

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.

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.

“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.

Comments (46)

  1. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 12/20/2019 - 10:43 am.

    If Democrats turn out like they did in 2018, Republicans are in real trouble. This time, there is no excuse for not understanding how bad Trump is.

  2. Submitted by Scot Kindschi on 12/20/2019 - 10:51 am.

    Short answer? No.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/20/2019 - 11:05 am.

    We won’t know until the election results are announced, but I certainly hope not. Donald Trump doesn’t belong in any public office, at any level, much less the presidency.

  4. Submitted by Max Hailperin on 12/20/2019 - 11:45 am.

    A lot is going to hinge on whether voters in greater Minnesota choose to effectively abstain, whether by not voting at all, not voting specifically in the presidential race, or voting for someone other than the two main candidates. The Trump campaign won’t just be trying to drive up turnout, they’ll be trying to win over those who voted for Gary Johnson and Evan McMullin in 2016. Conversely, they’ll be trying to convert Democratic voters into abstainers. Both of these goals are likely to be served by targeting a lot of negative advertising at greater Minnesota, portraying the Democratic candidate as scary.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/20/2019 - 12:56 pm.

    This scenario of a possible Trump victory assumes that Democratic voting levels will remain static. A more popular Democratic candidate will bring out more Democrats. Experience shows us that voters who don’t either candidate can stay home. Disenchanted Trumps voter don’t have to vote for the Democrat.

    There’s no empirical reason to assume that Trump voters will decide the election result in MN, so analyzing Trump voters alone is probably in error.

  6. Submitted by Tom Crain on 12/21/2019 - 11:19 am.

    here is an interesting visual for 2016 votes by county. Kind of a bubble graph laid over the state map

  7. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 12/21/2019 - 12:00 pm.

    Those living in such counties generally have been left behind by corporate/bank/billionaire globalization, so anyone who listens to their concerns and offers up some tangible argument as to how they are going to improve rural economics, will likely get their vote.

    Dems on the other hand are making no argument, how to improve rural economics. In fact they seem to act like rural/working poor economics don’t matter, which is an opening for Trump to exploit. The more people left behind by globalization, AI, Automation, Corporatism, private equity, the more Dems lose if they continue to argue for economic policies that are more of the same having impoverished so many.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/21/2019 - 05:04 pm.

      Minnesota just elected a governor from Blue Earth county — not an urban powerhouse.

      • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 12/22/2019 - 09:22 am.

        Walz ran against a weak, uncharismatic candidate, Jeff Johnson. Walz was and is also very supportive of copper/nickle mining in northern Minnesota, his economics generally are indistinguishable from Republicans, he has a military connection, but also manages to protray himself as a more compassionate conservative Dem.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/22/2019 - 08:16 pm.

          The idea that Walz’s economics are no different from Republicans is utter nonsense. You should have quit when Paul blew up your argument by pointing out the Dems elected a governor from a rural district.

          • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 12/23/2019 - 11:01 am.

            First of all, the discussion is about what presidential candidate can win rural counties in Minnesota, not how the democrat Walz from rural country won the one state he was running in.

            Second of all, I offered at least one example how Walz’ economics are not much different than Republican. I would add that he has not suggested anything to stem the tide of consolidation in agriculture, fundamental to rural economics. In fact what economic policy has he offered that isn’t more neoliberal status quo, great for the wealthy and a nothingburger for the rest of us?

            Otherwise, I think my argument holds up just fine. Bernie has plenty that would appeal to rural counties. Biden? About as much as Obama.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/26/2019 - 01:39 pm.

        The idea that Walz won because of his geographic origin or his “centrists” politics has always been garbage.

        Most voters have no idea whatsoever where he lived before he was governor and they certainly didn’t vote for him based his address. The fact that “moderates” keep pointing to his hometown as proof of some kind merely reveals their own political isolation.

        Walz ran to the left, not the middle. While he talked about bring MN together he did promise to that by sharing power with Republicans, he promised to that by solving problems and building on success. He even endorsed a public option for MN.

        Walz ran as liberal. I decided to roll the dice and vote for him despite decades of bait-n-switch Democrats, and I have to say thus far I’m not unhappy with Walz.

        Having said all of that the main advantage Walz had was his Republican opponent who’s name I can’t even remember at the moment. Moderate Democrats always want to claim their political genius every time they defeat a Republican dud, as if no other candidate could defeat a loser. Yet when they loose to a dud it’s always someone else’s fault. Whatever.

        Trump is his own worse enemy in MN. His presidency will drive huge numbers of liberals to the polls regardless what happens in rural areas. And whoever the Democrat is, he or she will be far more popular than Clinton was, which will also boost the “blue” vote.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 12/27/2019 - 08:56 am.

      “Yes, I will improve rural economics by starting a trade war to facilitate industrial trade at the expense of farm trade” …DJT

  8. Submitted by Sheila Kihne on 12/21/2019 - 12:47 pm.

    Yes. Especially when the Democrats choose a candidate that the vast majority of their voters can’t get behind. It’s like Hillary part II.

    Pass the popcorn.

  9. Submitted by Paul Yochim on 12/21/2019 - 02:05 pm.

    Tough to say. In 2020 all of the Democratic candidates share two qualities. First, none of them have anything new to offer. Same old song and dance. With the exception of Pete Buttigieg they are old white men and woman. So much for the party of diversity.

    Second and even more important, what will draw people out of hiding to vote Democratic is that none of the candidates are named Donald Trump.

  10. Submitted by Michael Hess on 12/21/2019 - 11:30 pm.

    This Trump strategy has to be viewed in the light of their less public strategy related to voter suppression and turning rural voters out at the same time challenging Democratic voters.

    • Submitted by Paul Yochim on 12/22/2019 - 10:03 am.

      A debate between President Trump and former VP Joe Biden would be like watching WWE Smackdown.

    • Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 12/22/2019 - 11:24 am.

      Legally, every citizen (not convicted of a felony) has the right to vote. That does not mean everyone should vote.

      Case in point; social media is awash in lefties celebrating because they believe that because the House Democrats voted to impeach, Trump is no longer President. There are thousands of such messages floating around, and for every one of those comments, there are tens of thousands out there that believe it to be true.

      In my opinion, people who are so woefully ignorant of our system of government, as well as the issues in play for many, really should not be weighing in on who runs it. That is to say, as long as violence and cohersion are never employed, it is not only legal to discourage some from voting; it’s our patriotic duty.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/22/2019 - 07:40 pm.

        “Legally, every citizen (not convicted of a felony) has the right to vote. That does not mean everyone should vote.”

        But it’s the libs that are the elitists.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/22/2019 - 08:26 pm.

        Yeah, but there is a lot of that ignorance on the other side too.

        Case in point: I was recently explaining here on this site that the Republicans controlled the house and senate during Trump’s first two years, but didn’t want to fund the border wall. A Trump supporter responded that it didn’t get funded because it takes 2/3 of the house to pass a budget. Anyone with even a basic understanding of how the government works knows that’s nonsense. Most budgets pass with far less than 2/3 support. Yet somehow this Trump supporter believed that to be the case. Maybe that person shouldn’t vote.

      • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 12/23/2019 - 11:16 am.

        If ignorance of the issues were the measure, hardly anyone should vote.

        But that is not the measure. The measure is, one person, one vote. Democracy is really that simple at it’s core.

        That so much damage has been done to democracy of late is quite clear, in both a conservative and a liberal arguing here about how ignorance should be an impediment to voting. I would argue instead, it is ignorant of you to think you should be an arbiter of who gets to vote.

        One person, one vote.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/26/2019 - 01:46 pm.

      Voter suppression has been an ongoing project for over a decade. Back in 2004 Democrats had to deploy poll watchers all over the state because Republican’s were fielding watchers who were trained to challenge as many voters as possible with little or any justification. My wife was a poll watcher up in Duluth that year and officials there actually ejected the one of the Republican watchers because of his hostility and interference. That guy went elsewhere and actually made the news!

      Trump is bad, but the real problem is that the Party itself is slipping into Neo-Fascism. They don’t need elections to be anything more than window dressing, the trappings of democracy will do just fine as long they can control the outcome.

  11. Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 12/22/2019 - 06:07 am.

    Joe Biden has repeatedly made a fool of himself during debates with his fellow Democrats. Can you imagine what he will look like during a debate with Trump?

    And let us not forget the GOP, and the Trump campaign are flush with cash. The ground game in swing states, like Minnesota will be unprecedented.

    I firmly believe by the time the polls open, Democrat voters will be so thoroughly demoralized, many won’t even bother to show up.

    In short, yes I believe Minnesota is ripe for the picking.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 12/22/2019 - 10:52 pm.

      Just keep believing that. The reality is that it’s going to be the exact opposite. People want to crawl over broken glass to jettison that orange conman back to Mar-a-Lago permanently.

      • Submitted by Bob Petersen on 12/23/2019 - 10:18 am.

        It’s that type of response that energizes Trump followers even more plus gives those independent voters more reason to vote against who the Democratic nominee is, even if they don’t like Trump.
        You also give flavor to that identity politics matter more to liberals than what’s usually been more important to families than anything else, their personal economics, which is sure hard to beat right now.

        • Submitted by Matt Haas on 12/23/2019 - 10:45 am.

          You understand how silly that sentiment is, also how intrinsically delusional, right? For this to be true, 1. You assume every “independent” to be merely a “conservative in waiting” only forestalling their inevitable conservative vote due to personal distaste for Donald Trump. This is then overcome by liberals continuing to point out Trump’s character flaws. Huh? 2. That outrage only flows in one direction, conservative Trump supporters MUST be energized by being called names by liberals, but when conservatives insist liberals are baby-killing atheist communists, they what, just take it to heart or something? 3. That Minnesota is somehow “REALLY” a conservative state (despite going on 15 years evidence to the contrary), it’s just all those people, in the states most populous region, preventing it’s TRUE nature from showing forth, because you know, geography be damned, that region isn’t REALLY Minnesota, after all.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/23/2019 - 11:09 am.

          “Well, I never! I was undecided, but after seeing the mean things those darn liberals said about President Trump, I’m going to vote for him despite my misgivings about his character and disagreement with many of his policies.”

          Yes, people across America will be saying that. Some of them may even keep a straight face while doing so.

    • Submitted by Tom Crain on 12/26/2019 - 10:28 am.

      I think you underestimate the power of Trump fatigue.

      Nearly 10% of the 2016 vote was Not HRC and Not Trump, the lowest combined vote for the major parties since Ross Perot ran in ’92. The Dems (wisely) aren’t running HRC again and I struggle to see why Trump will improve upon his 44.93% of the vote this time around. Rural economies are still struggling in most places.

  12. Submitted by Laura Summers on 12/22/2019 - 12:26 pm.

    Greta Kaul–Would it be possible to generate a longitudinal sketch of what is happening in Minnesota’s farm economy, say since c2006? Some idea of the long slow decline in farming as a business and way of life would seem to be essential for assessing the impact of the Trump campaign’s proposed strategy, as Paul U suggests. An overview of recent reports on farm bankruptcies might provide an indication of the economic depth of the current farm crisis. Are there figures on the declining (?) number of farms or the increasing average size of farms assuming that some amalgamation of small farms is occurring? Is the price of land in MN rising or falling?

    The USDA once published IRS figures on taxed farm income with figures for annual median farm incomes. These were negative as of a couple of years ago. If the IRS publishes figures for non-farm income reported on farm returns, i.e. farm women losing secondary jobs in local small towns, is a declining trajectory showing up there too?. The President praised himself at his Michigan rally for protecting farmers by awarding them “subsidies”– payments officially identified as market facilitation payments,but in reality, cash compensation to producers who lost markets as a result of his tariff and trade policies. These were worth a total of $16 billion for 2019. They do not appear to be of much benefit to small family farms in southern Minnesota. Thanks for thinking about it.

    • Submitted by Dave Carlson on 12/25/2019 - 11:25 am.

      I am relatively certain Trump will once again offer these “market facilitation payments” to farmers (even though most go to wealthy corporate farm operations) in 2020 to bolster his standing in the rural areas, along with strong anti-abortion and pro-guns and Democrats-as-Socialists rhetoric… and drain-the-swamp down with big government (even though government is as big as ever) sentiment… so, yes, these areas will once again remain largely in Trump’s camp. So it comes down to voter turnout among the suburban swing voters and new young voters and urban minorities and those appalled at the anti-environment deregulations and policies recently enacted without congressional oversight. I think it is always important to point out that Trump didn’t get that many more votes than Romney or McCain, but Clinton got a lot less votes than Obama, which is what made it closer in 2016.

      • Submitted by Laura Summers on 12/27/2019 - 10:05 am.

        In the handful of rural counties that I know best, there is growing concern about global warming and extreme weather events. Related to this, and among younger voters in particular, there also appears to be growing recognition of the need to reduce our (world’s) dependence on fossil fuels and hostility towards proposed new pipelines. My suspicion is that some of these activists voted for Green Party candidates in 2016.

        I mention this because I seem to recall that third party candidates for President won around 9% of the total vote in Minnesota in 2016. The DFL should not overlook historic tendencies to support third parties in greater Minnesota. Especially in hard times.

  13. Submitted by Ken Tschumper on 12/24/2019 - 03:04 pm.

    I feel that many inaccurate, confused comments have been made in the above discussion. I have lived in the same rural county on the same farm all my life. (70 years). 44 years ago, in January of 1976, when I purchased my parent’s small dairy farm, there were 28,000 dairy farms in MN. When I quit milking, in December of 2013, there were 4,000 dairy farms. That change was the result of technology and economy of scale, as well as better opportunities in off-farm employment and a better lifestyle.

    Population decline as a result of poor economic opportunities in rural areas, has been going on for a long time. The populations of some western Minnesota counties have been declining since 1900.

    In this day and age I don’t think there is anything that could be described as a distinct “rural economic policy”. Technology, education, and innovation drive both urban and rural economies. Most people don’t understand, including many elected officials on all levels, that we have spent hundreds of billions of tax dollars on rural areas in the past 30 years and still have not been able to abate was is called “rural decline”.

    The main reason that Amy Klobuchar does well in rural areas is because she has unashamedly advocated for ethanol, the worst economic and environmental disaster ever to happen in rural America.

    The reasons most rural residents voted for T. are guns and abortion. Other than reversing their position on guns and abortion, there is nothing that Dem presidential candidates can say to most of these rural voters to get their votes.

    The suburbs are where the winning votes for Dems are. Suburban middle class voters are finally starting to realize that if they want decent schools, a decent retirement , decent healthcare and want to address climate change, they have to vote for Dems because Republicans are not going to deliver any of these things.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/26/2019 - 10:07 am.

      “The reasons most rural residents voted for T. are guns and abortion.”

      Republican leaders will, of course, deny that such a thing is possible. They claim that rural voters (or Republican voters anywhere, for that matter) are motivated by economic concerns, not social and cultural ones. That lack of concern, you see, is why firearms and abortion are the main litmus tests for Republican candidates.

    • Submitted by Steve Roth on 12/27/2019 - 01:18 pm.

      I think you can also make the argument that many rural voters might be voting for Trump because of his anti-immigration policies (read: non-white immigration). Not to paint with too broad a brush, but there’s a reason why Trump goes to that hateful well so often…

  14. Submitted by joe smith on 12/25/2019 - 02:58 pm.

    Never thought I’d say this but a Republican will carry the Range easily next Presidential election. What a change of heart up here after 24 years of globalists in the White House, an America first President, has reignited hope. Funny Hope and Change did nothing but Make America Great Again has the Range going Republican.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/26/2019 - 10:11 am.

      The population of St. Louis County, excluding Duluth, represents 2% of the population of the state.

      I would call the Iron Range a “niche market.”

      • Submitted by joe smith on 12/28/2019 - 10:24 am.

        The point is not how big St. Louis county is, the point is Democrats have lost an area that voted DFL for years.

        • Submitted by Laura Summers on 12/28/2019 - 04:07 pm.

          Minnesota counties in CD-8, CD-1 and CD-7 will almost certainly be the most heavily targeted. The GOP flipped only three US Congressional seats in 2018, two of them in MN, namely CD-8 and CD-1. Re-electing freshmen Congressmen Stauber and Hagedorn and defeating veteran DFL Congressman Collin Peterson in CD-7, Chair of the House Agriculture Committee and the most powerful farmer in Congress, are central to the Republican strategy for a Trump victory in MN in 2020. But putting to one side the problems and hopeful expectations of us voters, there are reasons for questioning how successful or empirically grounded the Trump Campaign plan is.

          The Axios article cited with a hot link by Ms Kaul, reports on plans to spin Trump’s “unpopularity” into more votes, an idea on a moral par with the drive to raise money on the back of impeachment! The Campaign also claims to have nearly completed the “reshaping” of state parties which involves removing leaders deemed “Never Trumpers”. Romney supporters and former Independent Republicans beware. There is also discussion about how to coax an estimated 9 million “missing” and temporarily “disengaged” Trump voters who failed to turn out for Republican candidates in 2018. Overall, the numbers and projections seem more than a little fanciful.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/30/2019 - 09:03 am.

          And the Republicans are starting to lose areas that have been voting GOP for years (see, e.g., the 3rd CD). The more the Republicans push the divisive social issues, and the more they cling to their particular brand of identity politics, the more they will lose in more urbanized and suburban areas.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/26/2019 - 05:56 pm.

      Yeah, America First. So long as Putin approves.

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