This is the third in a series of articles examining the politics and demographics of 2020’s expected swing states.
In the fabled “blue wall” — the collection of historically Democratic states that pundits (wrongly) assumed gave Hillary Clinton an Electoral College advantage in 2016 — Minnesota is the cornerstone. The Democratic candidate has won Minnesota in 11 straight presidential elections, the longest active streak in the country. What’s more, no Republican has won any statewide election in Minnesota since 2006 — not for Senate, not for governor, not even for state auditor.
It’s tempting to conclude from this that Minnesota is a safe Democratic state. But Minnesota is much more evenly divided than that record suggests: For example, it came within a couple percentage points of voting for now-President Trump in 2016. And as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — which voted Democratic in every presidential election from 1992 to 2012 — showed in 2016, streaks are meant to be broken.1
Most ominously for Democrats, there is evidence that Minnesota is becoming redder over time, with 2016 being a particular inflection point. In 1984, the state was 18.2 points more Democratic than the nation as a whole. But in 2016, for the first time since 1952, Minnesota voted more Republican than the rest of the U.S.
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And Minnesota may be even further right in 2020. According to the current2 FiveThirtyEight forecast, Joe Biden is on track to defeat Trump by 4.2 points in Minnesota — 1.9 points better for Trump than our forecast for the national popular vote.
What explains Minnesota’s rightward shift? Fifty-three percent of the population age 25 and older are non-Hispanic white and lack a bachelor’s degree, a demographic with which Republicans — and especially Trump — have been gaining ground. Historically, though, Minnesota’s predominantly white, working-class population has actually been quite progressive: The state’s many German and Scandinavian immigrants (the biggest ethnic groups in Minnesota are German Americans, at 33 percent of the population, and Norwegian Americans, at 15 percent) brought with them their progressive values and faith in government, and its active labor movement (in 1983, more than 23 percent of Minnesota employees were members of a union) rallied blue-collar workers around the Democratic Party. In fact, Minnesota’s Democratic Party isn’t called the Democratic Party at all — it is the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, reflecting its historical growth out of those two constituencies.
But in recent elections, Democrats’ pro-environment and anti-gun positions have alienated these voters in places like the Iron Range, an ancestrally Democratic mining region, and in 2016 Trump was able to tap into their racial and economic grievances as well. Democrats went from carrying Minnesota by 7.7 points in 2012 to carrying it by just 1.5 in 2016. Tellingly, the counties that shifted the most toward Trump were also the counties with the highest concentrations of white people without a college degree.
As you can see, 2016 also contributed to Minnesota’s ongoing urban-rural realignment. One of the most important divides in Minnesota politics is between the diverse, cosmopolitan Twin Cities metro area and “Greater Minnesota,” whose residents often feel short-changed relative to the metro. In 2016, every county in Greater Minnesota got redder, and 19 of them flipped from Barack Obama to Trump.
However, there is a silver lining for Democrats: Several counties in the metro actually got bluer in 2016, powered by formerly Republican suburbs like Eden Prairie, Edina and Chanhassen. Still, it wasn’t enough to counterbalance Democrats’ losses in Greater Minnesota, so the state shifted toward Republicans overall.
So, robbed of the formula that fueled them for so long — an uncharacteristically strong performance in rural areas and among non-college-educated white voters — Democrats are now in serious danger of losing Minnesota for the first time since 1972. It might not happen this year: Biden, after all, leads by 4.2 points in our forecast there. But that is more about Biden’s strength nationally than Minnesota being blue.
Indeed, Minnesota is now one of the likeliest states to be the Electoral College tipping point — the state that delivers the next president his decisive 270th electoral vote. So assuming that future presidential elections are closer contests, be prepared for Minnesota to be one of the main swing states going forward — and know that the next time a Republican wins the White House, there’s a good chance Minnesota’s blue streak will have come to a long-awaited end.