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Why the suburbs matter so much in Minnesota elections

The results of last week’s presidential primary only underscored the importance of votes in the suburbs of the Twin Cities.

Burnsville City Hall
Minnesotans looking toward the 2020 election would be wise to watch the suburbs.
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul

Minnesotans who went to the polls to vote in the Democratic primary last week gave former Vice President Joe Biden a decisive edge in votes: 38.6 percent statewide, compared to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 29.9 percent.

One place that turned out in strong numbers — especially for Biden — was the Twin Cities suburbs, where Biden won a third more votes than Sanders.

The primary isn’t the only Minnesota election where the suburbs are a big deal. In a high stakes November election, all 201 Minnesota Legislative seats, every member of the U.S. House and, of course, the presidential contest, will be on the ballot. Minnesotans looking toward the 2020 election would be wise to watch the suburbs.

That’s for two reasons: one, when you look at where the votes come from in presidential races, suburban cities in the seven-county metro have grown faster than any part of the state, and may soon make up more votes than the 80 counties in Greater Minnesota. And two: though the suburbs have tended toward Democrats in recent elections, they don’t reliably vote for one party.

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Bigger burbs

In the 2016 presidential election, 43.7 percent of votes in Minnesota were cast in the suburbs — for our purposes, the seven-county Twin Cities metro area excluding Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Share of votes by Minnesota region
The Twin Cities suburbs include the seven-county metro area outside Minneapolis and St. Paul. Greater Minnesota is the 80 counties outside the seven-county metro.
Source: Minnesota Secretary of State

That’s very nearly equal to the 44.1 percent of votes cast in Greater Minnesota — the 80 non-metro counties. But here’s the difference between the two: while the share of votes from the suburbs has been growing, up from 40.3 percent of votes in the 1992 presidential race, the share from Greater Minnesota has shrunk since then: In the 1992 presidential election, votes from Greater Minnesota made up 46.3 percent of the statewide total.

Between population growth and high voter turnout, the suburbs have grown even more quickly, in terms of presidential votes, than Minneapolis and St. Paul, which were also a smaller percent of votes statewide in 2016 than they were in 1992.

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Unpredictable voters

It’s not just that the suburbs have grown that make them a big deal in statewide elections. They’re also the most unpredictable voting bloc in the state.

That’s a big contrast to voters in Minneapolis and St. Paul, which together make up about 12 percent of votes statewide, and consistently voted for Democrats by large margins in recent decades. In 2016, voters in these two cities preferred Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by a ratio of nearly 6:1.

It’s also in contrast to Greater Minnesota, where Republicans have consolidated political support in recent years: Republicans hold nearly every legislative seat in the region and in 2016 Greater Minnesota gave Trump about a third more votes than Clinton.

That year, 44.1 percent of votes statewide came from Greater Minnesota, and the region’s preference for Trump helped him come closer to winning the state than any Republican presidential candidate in recent memory.

The suburbs? Solidly in the middle.

In 1992,  and 1996, the suburbs preferred Bill Clinton over George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole (a caveat: independent candidate Ross Perot was in the race both years). In 2000 and 2004, they preferred George W. Bush over Al Gore and John Kerry. In 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama won the suburbs over John McCain and Mitt Romney. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won more suburban votes than Donald Trump.

But something happened in 2016 that hasn’t happened in recent presidential election memory: the suburbs leaned more Democratic than the state.

Share of votes for Democrats in presidential races in the Twin Cities suburbs and Minnesota
The Twin Cities suburbs include the seven-county metro area outside Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Source: Minnesota Secretary of State

There are a couple possible reasons for this.

It could have to do with Trump: Research and polling suggests that Trump is unpopular in the suburbs, something that helped Democrats overtake the U.S. House in 2018 (they took the Minnesota House through picking up suburban seats, the same year).

That dislike of Trump especially applies to women, who historically make up the majority of the electorate in the suburbs.

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Another factor could be education.

Pew Research found that in 1994, 54 percent of college graduates identified with or leaned toward the Republican Party, while 39 percent identified or leaned toward the Democratic Party.

In 2018, those numbers had completely flipped, with 54 percent of college graduates identifying or leaning toward the Democratic Party, and 39 percent identifying or leaning toward Republicans.

Minnesota’s suburbs are among the most educated parts of the state: the third Congressional District, which is made up of Minneapolis suburbs, is both the highest-earning and most educated district.