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The case for Trump being able to win Minnesota — and why it’s unlikely

With visits from the president, vice president, Donald Trump, Jr., and Lara Trump the Trump campaign seems to be making a serious effort in Minnesota. Could it work?

President Donald Trump waving to supporters after arriving at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport on August 17.
President Donald Trump waving to supporters after arriving at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport on August 17.
REUTERS/Tom Brenner

Minnesota has gotten a lot of attention from President Donald Trump’s campaign of late: Last month Trump himself visited Mankato for a rally. Soon after, Vice President Mike Pence made a stop in Duluth. The president’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., visited Duluth on Wednesday, and Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, is visiting Minneapolis Thursday.

Those efforts might look misplaced: Trump is behind in the polls in Minnesota, and the state’s voters hold the record of voting for Democrats for president the most years running, going all the way back to Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Then again, they might not. Every four years, the question of whether Minnesota’s long Democratic voting streak will finally be broken gets raised anew. But this year, declarations of Minnesota’s swing state status seem more frequent, citing Trump’s near-win (he was 1.5 percentage points behind Hillary Clinton), in 2016, as well as the amount of energy and resources the president’s campaign is spending in Minnesota.

Could this be the year a Republican presidential candidate finally wins Minnesota?

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A history of close races

“Yes, Minnesota is a swing state, a battleground state, a purple state, in that it’s a close state,” said Eric Ostermeier, a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota and the author of the Smart Politics Blog.

While Minnesota has remained in the blue column since 1976, many of the races since then have been close: the 2016 race, where Clinton won by a slim 1.5 percentage points wasn’t even the closest of them; that’d be 1984, when 0.2 percentage points separated native-son Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan (giving Mondale his only state victory in the Electoral College. He also carried Washington, D.C.).

Presidential election results in Minnesota, 1976-2016
Source: Minnesota Legislative Reference Library

The question, Ostermeier said, is whether Minnesota is a state that consistently goes for one party — even if by a narrow margin — or if it’s a state that could actually flip to the other party.

The argument for Trump

Of flipping Minnesota, Nathan Gonzales, the editor and publisher of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan election analysis website, had this to say: “[Trump] might be able to.” Minnesota should be within reach for him based on the 2016 election result.

Polls taken around this time in 2016 put Clinton and Trump at similar levels of support  to where Biden and Trump are at now. That race turned out to be very close.

The amount of time and energy Trump and his surrogates are spending in Minnesota suggests they see potential dividends in the state. Trump has said he believed he would have flipped Minnesota in 2016 if he had visited the state one more time before the election.

And they’re not only spending time in Minnesota, they’re spending money: Through August, the Trump campaign had spent $2.5 million on ads in Minnesota, while the Biden campaign had spent $790,000, according to Kantar Media figures compiled by CNN.

Preya Samsundar, a Republican National Committee spokesperson, said people who think the near upset in 2016 was a fluke are mistaken.

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According to Samsundar, many Midwestern states have moved from supporting Democrats to Republicans over recent decades, and she sees evidence that Minnesota is on that trajectory in the shift in voter’s party preferences in places like Minnesota’s Seventh and Eighth congressional districts.

“We’re seeing the tides turning. There’s a mass exodus of Democrats. There has been for a long time,” she said.

There are opportunities to pick up votes in those areas, as residents become increasingly disenchanted with Democrats’ policies, Samsundar said, but also in suburban areas.

“We are leaving no stone unturned. We are going after every vote in every county across the state,” she said.

The case against Trump winning Minnesota

Minnesota polls, by-and-large, slightly favor Biden. In polls of the state from August and September Biden’s lead averaged 5.6 percentage points.

The most recently released poll, conducted online between Sept. 4 and Sept. 7 and released Wednesday by KSTP and SurveyUSA (which has an A pollster rating from FiveThirtyEight), had Biden up 9 percentage points among likely voters with a margin of error of +/- 5.2 percentage points.

Biden led Trump by 21 percentage points in the Twin Cities region and by 4 points in Southern Minnesota, while Trump led Biden by 19 points in Western Minnesota and 24 percentage points in Northeastern Minnesota.

Getting away from the numbers a bit, Ostermeier said it would surprise him if a state that elected Attorney General Keith Ellison by 3.9 percentage points in a statewide election in 2018 would not back Biden, who is likely to appeal to a broader electorate, just two years later.

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Ellison ran 8 points behind Gov. Tim Walz, at the top of the ticket, and against Doug Wardlow, but still won by a larger margin than Hillary Clinton.

“To me there would have to be a pretty significant change in the electorate,” he said.  “It’s hard for me to believe that in the same state, two years later, you’re going to find an electorate that is 4 points more to the right, or more conservative than the electorate that voted Keith Ellison into office. Granted not at the top of the ticket, but people were paying attention.”

A flyer sent to voters in September by the Republican Party of Minnesota promoting President Donald Trump.
A flyer sent to voters in September by the Republican Party of Minnesota promoting President Donald Trump.
The polls suggest Minnesota may be competitive, but other evidence suggests it may not, Gonzales said. He said not many national resources are being devoted to the Senate race, which pits incumbent DFL Sen. Tina Smith against Republican former Second District Rep. Jason Lewis.

In House races, the evidence doesn’t back up a neck-and-neck statewide race, either, Gonzales said: The national investment isn’t there in seats like CD2.

Four years ago, in 2016, CD2 elected talk radio firebrand Lewis. This year, Tyler Kistner, the Republican challenger to DFL Rep. Angie Craig, is a good candidate for the district, but he got in late, Gonzales said.

“I don’t think he’s going to really have the wind at his back,” Gonzales said, adding that in CD2, Trump is more likely to be a liability this time around than an asset.

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“If the president is not winning the Second District, the Second District is the kind of district the president needs to win if he needs to win statewide,” Gonzales said.

He said polls suggest Trump may be running behind where he was in CD7 in 2016, a year with Clinton, a historically unpopular Democratic candidate, at the top of the ticket.

“Trump won by 30 points in 2016. According to what I’ve seen, Trump’s going to win it, but it’s going to be by less than 30,” Gonzales said, and asked where Trump could be expected to pick up votes if he’s losing them in the Seventh District.

How much will Minnesota matter?

For all the interest in Minnesota this year, it may be something of an academic exercise.

FiveThirtyEight forecasts Minnesota is the fourth most likely state to be the deciding factor — the tipping point – in putting one candidate or the other over the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the race. The odds of that happening? A relatively small 7 percent.

That’s far behind Pennsylvania (30 percent), Florida (15 percent) and Wisconsin (8 percent).

Trump’s best shot at winning the presidency again this year is to repeat his path to victory in 2016, Gonzales predicted. But he’s not doing all that well in polls in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, so he has to make up for it somewhere else.

While Minnesota, with 10 electoral votes, can’t make up for losses in Michigan and Pennsylvania, with 16 and 20 votes respectively, it could make up for a loss in Wisconsin, which also has 10.

But as states go, it’s tough to imagine Wisconsin flipping to the Democratic column while Minnesota goes red. Ostermeier said that when states flip in a given election cycle, they tend to flip the same direction.