Why so many Minnesota political campaigns hinge on the swingin’ suburbs

Chaska, MN
In 2016, there were nearly four times as many votes for president in the Twin Cities suburbs as in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

As Republicans tighten their hold on Greater Minnesota and Democrats solidify their base in the state’s urban areas, it’s suburbanites who occupy both the physical and political in-between-land.

In statewide and Congressional contests, and in the race to control the Minnesota House, the Twin Cities suburbs are a big focal point of both parties’ campaign efforts.

The Twin Cities suburbs —Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott and Washington counties, not including Minneapolis or St. Paul — represent a pretty small slice of the state in terms of landmass. So why do they get all the political attention?

A big slice

They may not have skyscrapers like Minneapolis and St. Paul, but taken as a whole, the number of voters in the suburbs dwarfs the number of voters in the Twin Cities themselves.

How much bigger?

In 2016, there were nearly four times as many votes for president in the Twin Cities suburbs as in Minneapolis and St. Paul. In fact, there were nearly as many votes in the Twin Cities’ suburban counties as there were in all 80 counties outside the Twin Cities metro.

Where the votes are by region
For this story's purposes, the suburbs include voters in the 2016 presidential race in Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott and Washington counties, not including Minneapolis or St. Paul.
Source: Minnesota Secretary of State

Put together, the Twin Cities’ 10 biggest suburbs alone account for 13 percent of the vote statewide. Compare that with about 7 percent of the statewide vote in Minneapolis and 5 percent in St. Paul.

Percent of votes statewide for president by top Twin Cities suburbs, 2016
The 10 suburbs with the highest vote tallies accounted for 13 percent of all votes for president in Minnesota in 2016.
Source: Minnesota Secretary of State

Purple people

It’s not just the number of voters in the suburbs that makes them a focus for this year’s elections.

It’s also their penchant for voting for Republican candidates sometimes, and DFL candidates others — often on the same ballot. In a state where the cities are increasingly blue and Greater Minnesota is turning redder, many suburbs are still up for grabs for either party.

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

Look no further than the 12 districts — all of them suburban — that went for Hillary Clinton that also elected Republican state representatives on election night in 2016. Many of them are places that, in 2012, voted for Mitt Romney, but in 2016 switched over to Democrat Hillary Clinton.

District 49A, represented by Republican Republican Dario Anselmo, exemplifies the phenomenon. Residents of this Edina district preferred Hillary Clinton by a 27 point margin, but sent Anselmo to the statehouse on a margin of 2 points.

That night, Anselmo took control of the district from Ron Erhardt, a longtime DFL (formerly Republican) incumbent.

In 2018, Democrats hope their candidate, Heather Edelson, can bring the seat back under DFL control as inner-ring suburbs like Edina turn bluer. As of the last campaign finance deadline, Republicans had barely spent any money in a district Democrats are targeting, a possible sign the GOP has written the seat off.

Seats that went for Clinton but elected Republicans to the House are on the DFL’s list of top legislative targets. Democrats need a net gain of 11 seats to take back control of the Minnesota House.

Two of Minnesota’s most closely-watched Congressional contests — the race between Jason Lewis and Angie Craig in CD2, and the race between Erik Paulsen and Dean Phillips in CD3 — are also largely suburban districts.

Places like Plymouth

Not all suburbs are equally up-for-grabs for either party. In Andover and other further-ring suburbs, Republicans have held onto healthy margins. Brooklyn Park, a diverse suburb northwest of Minneapolis, votes more like the cities.

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

This November, it’ll be places like Plymouth — a mid-sized second-ring suburb west of the cities — that are bellwethers for which way things are going, both in terms of statewide elections and when it comes to legislative control.

On the surface, Plymouth looks like many other second-ring Twin Cities suburbs: incomes are higher than places like Brooklyn Park and Hopkins, but lower than places like Lakeville. Plymouth’s population is slightly more diverse than the state’s as a whole.

But politically, it’s a bit more complicated than some of its neighbors. In 2016, Plymouth re-elected incumbent Minnesota Rep. Sarah Anderson, a Republican, but also voted for Hillary Clinton.

And that in a city with about 44,000 votes for president — more than Greater Minnesota’s Kittson, Roseau, Lake of the Woods, Beltrami, Cook and Clearwater counties combined.

That far exceeds the number of votes needed to decide a statewide election, some of which, in recent years, have come down to just a few hundred or a few thousand ballots.

It’s not just Plymouth that politicos are watching closely as elections near. Places like Maple Grove, Woodbury, Burnsville, Apple Valley and Edina are similarly large reservoirs of potential suburban swing: places where, with the right candidates in the right year, it could be either party’s game.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/29/2018 - 12:26 pm.

    This is a great article, presenting complex data in an understandable way. What I would like to know is how much of this is an effect of turn out. Are eligible voters in these ‘burbs more or less likely to turn out? Is their sway due to numbers, strong turn out, or both?

    Nate Silver? Any one seen Nate around?

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