illustration by mike davis
Due to high interest, President Donald Trump’s team moved his rally to a bigger venue.
And still, at 2 p.m. on June 20, a line of thousands snaked from Duluth’s hockey arena, through a sky bridge, into downtown, and back. They came from Onamia, Coleraine, Cook, and beyond to see the 45th president of the United States. Among them were Mary and Jim Mohs, organic dairy farmers from Belgrade, who oppose imports that don’t meet U.S. organic standards.
There was Ross Nova, a 29-year-old Bulgarian immigrant living in Minneapolis. He voiced concerns about illegal immigration, saying that, when he fought overseas in the U.S. infantry, “I didn’t fight for Mexico, I didn’t fight for Australia; I fought for our country.” A prospective business owner, he also bemoaned Minnesota’s high taxes, where he sees Trump making progress on the federal level.
A pair of 17-year-olds from Plymouth, Jack Olson and Niko Sexton, arrived in matching American-flag suits they bought at Kohl’s—to counter their anti-Trump friends protesting in Guy Fawkes masks nearby. They said they value veterans’ welfare.
Meanwhile, other protestors held signs blazoned with local and national concerns: securing women’s reproductive rights, thwarting plans for a U.S.-Mexico border wall, and blocking potentially toxic regional copper-nickel mining, for example.
Announced nine days before, the rally was Trump’s first locally since he drew upwards of 1,000 to Superior, Wisconsin, in 2016. Many would not get in. Before an estimated crowd of 8,000, he credited his administration’s tariffs for lifting the area’s ailing iron industry. He urged the crowd to vote Republican in November. And he said, of 2016, “We came this close to winning the state of Minnesota, and in two and a half years, it is going to be really easy.”
Minnesota, he implied, would follow two other long-Democratic states in the Great Lakes Steel Belt—Wisconsin and Michigan—in flipping from blue-leaning (Democrat) to red (Republican). Immediate reactions from news media were split: Could the Democratic Party’s claim on Minnesota, through 11 straight presidential cycles, be coming to an end?
From Nonpartisan to Polarized
To understand how Minnesota earned its blue reputation in the first place, we should examine an earlier time, when “blue” and “red” had different meanings than they do today.
By the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. had entered a period of progressivism. Along with trust-busting legislation and muckraking journalism, Minnesota’s Scandinavian-rooted Christian culture had sown distrust in big corporations and political parties. In a controversial 1913 decision, Minnesota actually took parties off the ballot for the state legislature. Voting came down to candidates’ personal merits and causes over affiliation.
In the mid-’40s, after President Franklin Roosevelt revived progressivism with his New Deal and turned Minnesota blue for the first time since statehood, local Democrats merged with the state’s Farmer-Labor Party to become the Democratic-Farmer-Laborers (DFL). The party pulled in Minnesota’s farmers and union workers.
When partisan state legislature contests resumed in the ’70s, the DFL took over for the next two decades. Blue state politicians—Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey, Wendell Anderson—pushed for progressive policies in a country scandalized by Watergate. Even then, though, the DFL and GOP could often work together for “the broad middle,” says Mitchell Hamline Law School professor David A. Schultz in his book Presidential Swing States.
HUMPHREY PORTRAIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS & PHOTOGRAPHY DIVISION; FISCHBACH PORTRAIT: DAVID OAKES
From 1976 to the present, Democrats won Minnesota in presidential elections. But underneath, politics would adjust to national trends. Shortly after the 1994 Republican Revolution, when the GOP flooded Congress, the DFL lost the State House. In 1998, the gubernatorial win by the Reform Party’s Jesse Ventura exposed Minnesota’s “broad middle” at odds with red and blue.
What had changed? As private-sector unions and agriculture declined, so did those factions of the DFL. Social conservativism grew in the ’80s, and Minnesota’s rural Christian roots recoiled from liberal stances on such issues as abortion and gay rights. By 2016, the northeast Iron Range—once reliably blue due to a then-strong, unionized mining industry—had drifted toward the business-minded GOP.
The state, in short, developed pockets: the Twin Cities, rural Minnesota, the Iron Range, and the suburbs. Today, University of Minnesota political studies professor Larry Jacobs in fact describes Minnesota as “polka-dotted.” The Twin Cities vote as blue as liberal California while some rural districts vote as red as parts of Alabama.
And even now, that ground is shifting: Minnesota’s eight congressional districts, torn between the GOP and DFL by 4-4 or 5-3 since the late-’90s, could realign come November. Trump, when he visited the reddening northeast, surely realized this.
Hillary’s Purple-State Blues
Minnesota’s record streak of Democratic presidential wins means less today than it used to—with votes in 2016 looking drastically different than they did even just a decade ago.
Still, prior to the last election, political analysts sounded confident Hillary Clinton would clinch Minnesota. A Democratic candidate has won here in every presidential contest following Nixon’s 1972 landslide, the longest blue stretch in history. Famously, when Ronald Reagan turned the rest of the country red in 1984, Minnesota was the lone state carried by Democratic contender (and native son) Walter Mondale.
But it came close in 2016. Clinton won here by just 43,785 votes—a 1.5-percent edge, less than her 2.1-point edge in the popular vote nationwide. (A “competitive” margin, political researchers say, is five points or fewer.) Just eight years before, Barack Obama had beaten John McCain in Minnesota by 298,045 votes—a 10.2-point edge, three more points than nationwide. And in 2012, Obama’s 7.7-point victory here surpassed his national margin by 3.8 points.
A key contributing factor: Clinton’s campaign never stopped in Minnesota (while Trump’s did twice). Also, 9 percent of state voters cast ballots for neither Trump nor Clinton—the most since Independent Ross Perot ran in the mid-’90s. Finally, Trump’s resonance with small-town America, including Minnesota’s strapped mining and farming communities, evidently boosted rural turnout (often Republican), while urban turnout (often Democratic) dipped, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Clinton still won Minnesota, but times have clearly changed: Obama took half the state’s 87 counties in 2008, about a third in 2012, and Clinton carried only nine in 2016. Of course, six of those nine included the densely populated Twin Cities and Duluth. But the rest of Minnesota’s 78 less populated, mostly ex-urban counties went red, often with as much as 60-70 percent of the vote.
Another dint to its blue reputation: Minnesota as a whole leans only 1 percent more Democratic than the U.S. based on the last two presidential cycles, according to the Cook Partisan Voting Index. True blue juggernauts—California, New York, and Massachusetts—clock in at 12 percent.
What Is Changing?
Ultimately, President Trump’s claim on Minnesota is—no surprise—complicated. A lot changes in two hours in today’s political climate, let alone two years, and it’s still a while before we’ll know the names on the ballot. In a state closely packed into opposing parties, the 2020 election will be “all about mobilization,” Schultz says.
Based on his research, Jacobs expects higher blue turnout in 2020 and notes three things: even a “complicated” candidate like Clinton won Minnesota, Democrats have commanded statewide offices for about 10 years, and Trump got just a few thousand more votes than Romney did in Minnesota in 2012.
Not to mention, Trump’s approval rating here has dipped from 45 percent at the start of the year to 38 percent, while a plurality of Minnesota voters has said they want to see Democrats regain Congress, according to recent NBC News and Marist polls. As for this year’s midterms: If Republicans have swept rural areas, Democrats are homing in on the suburbs.
Beyond that, Schultz looks to demographics for short- and long-term trends.
The Twin Cities are growing, for one. Since 2010, the metro has added about 250,000 people. Minnesota is also diversifying. By 2040, the Metropolitan Council predicts people of color will have risen from 25 to 40 percent of Twin Cities residents. Checking off key DFL traits—young, highly educated, and more diverse than greater Minnesota—means the metro could grow into an even greater blue heavyweight.
Outstate populations, meanwhile, are shrinking, aging, and more likely to vote Republican. They’re also more likely to vote; older white voters have proven the country’s most reliable. So, Minnesota’s fast-aging population could mean a stronger GOP electorate in the short term.
What Has Remained?
Demographics, though, are not destiny—as Trump’s win in a growingly diverse country proved—and amid decades-long trends, some argue less has changed than Minnesota’s electoral map might suggest.
On the hyper-local level, counties and cities throughout the state still hold nonpartisan contests. Enter Tom Stiehm: Since 2006, Stiehm has served as mayor of Austin, the seat of southern Minnesota’s Mower County, where Trump’s impact shows. Mower had voted blue in every presidential election since 1964—longer than Minnesota as a whole. Austin-based Hormel Foods, famous for its union, long fortified DFL appeal.
But Mower flipped in 2016. The rural population weighed in. Clinton did keep Austin, but Stiehm says some white residents today have voiced anti-immigrant concerns in line with Trump. Since the mid-’70s, Austin’s population has shifted from largely white, Stiehm says, to about 20 percent immigrant, including Hispanics and Africans.
Racial homogeneity and Christianity have streaked Minnesota with conservativism, says former Republican senator David Durenberger. But there’s another state legacy, one Durenberger outlines in his new book, When Republicans Were Progressive, and it harkens back to the beginning: progressive nonpartisanship.
For Stiehm, it’s his everyday. “I don’t think we have anybody on the city council that is a registered Republican or Democrat,” he says, adding, “I’m not.” To sort Austin’s budget, he listens to residents, experts, and city council members. Party politics never come in.
His one angle is progressivism: a commitment to civic betterment that he sees reflected in the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, too. For more than 30 years, this lobbying group of 97 outstate cities—from Albert Lea to Worthington—has used research, not ideology, to solve issues like inefficient land use, unfair labor contracts, and child-care shortages.
For his part, Stiehm works with the nonprofit Hormel Foundation, which funds Apex Austin, a group for equity among immigrants—carrying on what Durenberger calls Minnesota’s true reputation as moderate, forward-thinking, and welcoming of newcomers. From 1978 to 1995, Durenberger, a Republican senator, worked for this type of reform, particularly in healthcare, right alongside the state’s star DFL-ers.
“Minnesota is somewhat right-of-center, somewhat left-of-center sometimes, but pretty darn close,” Durenburger says, “unless somebody turns up the flame on one side or the other, like the Republicans happen to be doing.” Even then, though, “I think we’re the same people,” he adds. “We’re still the big-hearted state.”
Digital Extra: How Are You Voting?
For more perspectives from voters, see “How We Vote: Voices Across Minnesota’s Political Spectrum.”