Swingers: Minnesota

I’ve just looked at one state the pundits claim is a lock in perpetuity for Obama…how about I look at another one, just to prove I’m crazy.  We now head North, to the land of a thousand lakes and 10,000 fake votes, the home of regional tax-base sharing (the scourge of the small business and the liberty of the suburbs) and the source of the Mississippi River, not to mention the plucky global warming anti-alarmist group “Minnesotans for Global Warming.”  This state has an interesting history.  It was the only state in the union that supported Mondale (eeeeeeke!) and the never once backed Reagan.  Yet, in no election other than the Obama wave since the dawn of the modern demographic landscape has Minnesota ever skewed far enough left of center to be completely out of play for Republicans.  In fact, they elected a hard-right governor (Pawlenty), a demagogue tea-party congresswoman who just got buried in the 2012 Presidential Primaries (Michelle Bachmann), and a string of conservative senators (generally they have at least one out of their two in the red camp) that was broken only by massive electoral fraud when Al “fat-head” Franken won a Senate seat in 2008 by 300+ votes in an election where 64,000 voters could never be confirmed as residents and over 1,000 felons were proved to have voted.  Yet the state is considered out of play for Romney by most pundits despite the relative lack of polling there and the noticeable democrat skew in the very few polls that have been done.

Well, here’s what Minnesota actually looks like over the last three cycles:

As you can clearly see…this ain’t no easy picture to read.  If you’re a political strategist, what the heck do you do with that map?  Unlike in the previous three states I covered, Minnesota is not a feast or famine state with clear battlelines, clear demographic clients to play to, and a geographic landscape that shapes the vote in predictable ways.  These are fiercely independent people, few of whom go in for identity politics or pandering or slogan slinging.  There are two traditional liberal cities here – Minneapolis (in Hennepin County along with nearby St. Paul) and Duluth, along the shore of Lake Superior.  But the entire rest of the state is devoid of significant partisanship.  Seriously…take a step back and tell me what you see?  Because I see the very definition of a swing state.  Almost all counties are in play – conservatives have to do better than average outside Minneapolis to win this state, but the electorate wants to lean in their direction…thing is…though they are rural and share many things in common with nearby GOP strongholds like North Dakota and Nebraska, they are also big on larger than life personalities – it’s why they backed Vesse ‘the Body’ Ventura, Michelle Bachmann and Al Franken (though that one should never have happened if the system were fair), and it’s why the rural counties cannot be counted on to deliver solid conservative majorities.  As a consequence, the state leans noticeably left of center…but here’s the thing…these aren’t the kinds of people who can be blindly led by Democrat talking points forever.  Does this LOOK like a safe Democrat state to you?  Really?

Even the best-match county tells you something about the state.  It’s an out of the way cow pie along the state’s farm-dominated southern border, not far from left-leaning Dubuque, IA.  This nothing of a county is Fillmore.  Don’t bother remembering that name unless you want to track the state’s likely election outcome as the returns come in…you’ll never hear of it again.  The biggest city in Fillmore county is the outskirts of a city that is not in Fillmore County.  I think one time in Fillmore County, there was a traffic jam and it made a farmer three minutes late to the trading post auction.  I bet the biggest excitement in Fillmore County is the local movie theater, which may just now be showing The Avengers. (I kid…I doubt they’re that far behind, but I’m going for a cheap laugh, so sue me!)

Point is…this is not a state that is represented by the conflict between divided territories, the front of those wars along which the swing counties that determine elections lie.  This…is the great mushy state of “undecided” and “other.”  In fact, the partisan breakdown in MN backs me on this…each cycle they record how many registered Republicans, Democrats, Independents and “Other Party” voters they get in each county and state.  Minnesota is one of the most “Independent” states around with frequently 40% of its’ electorate refusing to choose a party or choosing a third party.  This is a populist state…they want politicians in Washington to be more like them and to think like they do.  Both the Tea Party and the Green Party have very strong presence in MN specifically because those are populist movements.

I would love to read a smartly-worded analysis of Minnesota by someone like Nate Silver (big election stats guy) explaining to an idiot like me exactly how such a mushy state can truly be said to be trending ANYWHERE at ANY time or can ever really be out of play for either party?  Because I am not getting it.  Here…let’s look at the trends by county slant grouping one more time, to get a feel for whether there has indeed been a significant trend.

GROUP 1: (Very Conservative)

  • 2000: 37.1 (4.6%)
  • 2004: 37.1 (4.6%)
  • 2008: 42.2 (4.7%)

GROUP 2: (Leans Right)

  • 2000: 42.9 (22.1%)
  • 2004: 42.0 (23.0%)
  • 2008: 44.9 (23.2%)

GROUP 3: (Swing Counties)

  • 2000: 48.7 (29.4%)
  • 2004: 48.3 (29.8%)
  • 2008: 52.0 (30.1%)

GROUP 4: (Leans Left)

  • 2000: 52.7 (4.4%)
  • 2004: 54.4 (4.3%)
  • 2008: 57.9 (4.1%)

GROUP 5: (Very Liberal)

  • 2000: 59.5 (39.6%)
  • 2004: 61.8 (38.4%)
  • 2008: 65.4 (38.0%)
Other than in Hennepin County, there is no trend in this data to suggest that the mass of non-urban counties in Minnesota are trending leftward at all.  In fact, other than an Obama blip in 2008 (a smaller blip here than in most other swing states), this state, for all of its independence and murkiness, has been pretty stable.  The cocktail, sans Obama GOTV effort, is decidedly neutral.  Gore and Kerry both won the state, but but uninspiring margins to be sure, and although Minneapolis has been veering leftward, its’ influence on the state vote has also been shrinking noticeably as wealthy citizens flee the folly of regional tax base sharing.  The liberal counties beat the conservative counties 43-28 in vote share – hence the leftward tilt of late – so I’m not projecting Romney will win the state, but don’t kid yourself into thinking it’s a “safe” bet in ANY election cycle.
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