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Why both presidential campaigns have been giving so much love to Duluth

Other parts of Minnesota have seen visits from the Trump and Biden campaigns, but it’s been nothing like the outsized attention showered on the state’s fifth-largest city. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden gets elbow bump greetings from local supporters during a campaign stop in Duluth on September 18.
Former Vice President Joe Biden gets elbow bump greetings from local supporters during a campaign stop in Duluth on September 18.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

As Donald Trump, Joe Biden and their campaign surrogates have zipped around Minnesota ahead of the 2020 election, one city has received outsized attention: Duluth.

Vice President Mike Pence made a stop there in August, followed by Donald Trump Jr. in early September. Biden visited in mid-September, and President Trump is now slated to hold a rally at the city’s airport Wednesday evening, a day after the first presidential debate.

That’s a lot of political love for the state’s fifth-largest city by population — and for a city that political experts view as safely Democratic. Trump won just 30 percent of the Duluth vote in 2016 while Mitt Romney and John McCain each got roughly 29 percent (though both tallied more total votes than Trump) in 2012 and 2008.

So why Duluth?

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Cynthia Rugeley, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, said Trump is broadly working to boost his numbers in more rural parts of Minnesota and is really targeting northern Minnesota areas like Duluth’s St. Louis County — which has trended Republican and often aligns with the president on industrial issues like support for copper-nickel mining. 

In 2016, Trump got 39.7 percent of the vote in St. Louis County compared to Romney’s 33.9 percent in 2012 and McCain’s 32.6 percent in 2008.

Chris Chapp, a political science professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, echoed that message, saying northeast Minnesota is “tailor-made” for Trump’s pro-jobs message because of its long history of industry like taconite mining and logging.

For Biden, who stopped in Duluth after touring a training center for a carpenter’s union in nearby Hermantown, the visit to the city could be about trying to hold down vote margins for Trump and turn out progressive Duluth voters and labor-friendly Minnesotans throughout the region, Rugeley said. 

Trade unions have a strong presence in northeast Minnesota and have historically supported Democrats, though many rank-and-file members opted for Trump in 2016. “I think (Biden) came here because he does want to reach out to those labor voters and try to make sure that he lets them know he’s still interested in them,” Rugeley said.

President Donald Trump shown holding a rally with supporters in Duluth on June 20, 2018.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
President Donald Trump shown holding a rally with supporters in Duluth on June 20, 2018.
Still, there are other reasons for both campaigns to visit Duluth. Rugeley said the Duluth media market stretches into Wisconsin and rural counties throughout the region. That means more press coverage and attention thanks to the attention in two swing states, not one. “I just think you get kind of a two-fer when you hit Duluth,” Rugeley said.

Rugeley said a trip to Duluth, which has a relatively big airport, is also easier and faster than heading deeper into the state — even if smaller cities on the Iron Range may have more swing voters. “It’s probably convenient as much as anything,” she said.

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Still, Chapp said he has been “puzzled” southern Minnesota hasn’t received more political attention given what’s expected to be a close race for the 1st Congressional District between incumbent Republican Jim Hagedorn and Democrat Dan Feehan. Plus, Chapp said that Rochester’s medical industry might find voters more receptive to Biden’s plans for larger government intervention to stop the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other areas of the state have still seen attention from the Trump and Biden campaigns. Trump has held rallies in Bemidji and Mankato, plus Pence and Ivanka Trump recently made stops in Minneapolis, with Ivanka also visiting Winona. Jill Biden, the Democratic candidate’s wife, held a campaign event in Minneapolis in early September.

But for now, the spotlight will remain on Duluth. “Strategically it kind of makes sense,” Chapp said. “You’re sort of simultaneously campaigning in two important states.”