Plenty of national media thought they saw something surprising in President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Duluth— a signal that Trump and his campaign team believe Minnesota and its ten electoral votes could be in play in 2020.
“Trump takes aim at Minnesota’s uber-liberals,” read the headline in D.C.-based Politico.
Rolling Stone suggested that even the decidedly liberal city of Duluth was “potential Trump Country,” painting Minnesota’s port city as a kind of post-industrial hellscape wracked by drug addiction, poverty, and persistent grime. Yes, not crime. The writer said every surface in Duluth was “covered in a thin layer of grime.” Duluthians, not surprisingly, took offense at the somewhat ridiculous portrayal of their fair city. Trump Country? How dare you?
Yet Trump is a master divider and his people have picked up on the growing rural-urban divide in the state. Politico says it’s that divide that has put Minnesota on Trump’s radar.
Trump did make inroads in a large swath of Minnesota in 2016, including on the Iron Range, where he won the Sixth Senate District, which represents the heart of the Range, by just over a thousand votes.
But there are three reasons why I don’t think Trump will win Minnesota in 2020. First, Hillary Clinton won’t be on the ballot for the Democrats. I’ve written before of Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate and won’t repeat them here. But Trump’s near-miss in Minnesota last time was as much a reflection of Clinton’s unpopularity as it was of Trump’s ability to connect with Minnesotans.
But there’s a bigger reason why Trump faces an uphill push in 2020 in the North Star state: Demographics. There may be a growing urban-rural divide in Minnesota, but it’s a divide that the Twin Cities metro is fated to win.
In the past eight years in Minnesota, just over half of the state’s 87 counties have lost population even as the state’s population as a whole continues to grow modestly. Since 2010, the Twin Cities metro region has added nearly 300,000 new residents, nearly half of them in Hennepin and Ramsey counties alone.
During that same period, St. Louis County lost about 500 residents.
My guess is Trump won’t improve his margin on the Iron Range that much in 2020. But even if he won every vote on the Range, it wouldn’t be enough to overcome the growing number of anti-Trump voters in the metro region, and it’s that demographic reality that is likely to keep Minnesota a blue state for years to come.
Much of rural Illinois voted heavily for Trump in 2016, but no one thinks for a moment that the Land of Lincoln is going to vote Republican in 2020, because Chicago is the only place that matters in the state, at least at election time. Its numbers so dominate the electoral map in Illinois that the rest of the state may as well not exist. Minnesota is increasingly moving in that direction.That has repercussions for rural Minnesota, but that’s the subject for another column.
Meanwhile, Trump may be an uber-effete, make-up wearing, Manhattan metrosexual, but he’s about as popular in major cities in the U.S. as Ebola.
In 2016, Trump received 28 percent of the vote in Hennepin County, and just 26 percent in nearby Ramsey County. He got just 30 percent of the vote in Duluth, which kept St. Louis County as a whole blue by about 11 percentage points. Despite what Rolling Stone wrote, Duluth isn’t a pit of despair, or a case study in the “American carnage” that Trump touted at his inaugural. It’s attracting young people and has shown real entrepreneurial energy in recent years. Those aren’t Trump supporters, no matter how many times he stops off at the Amsoil Arena.
Just five metro-area counties, including Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota, Washington, and Anoka, are home to 52 percent of the state’s population and they gave Clinton a roughly 340,000-vote margin in 2016, and that margin will likely be larger in 2020 simply because there will be more voters in those counties than before. Most rural Minnesota counties, meanwhile, will have fewer voters at the polls than in 2016.
For Trump, throwing fuel on the urban-rural divide might help GOP candidates in non-metro Minnesota (which is probably his real objective), but it’s not at all clear that it helps the party in statewide contests, and it certainly won’t help put Minnesota in his column two and a half years from now. He’s just as likely to motivate urban voters, many of them people of color with real cause to fear someone like Trump, to turn out against his retrograde policies as he’s likely to find rural ones to support them.
More exposure is unlikely to help the president here. Polling at the time of Trump’s inaugural showed him at a plus-three favorability rating in the state, as Minnesotans showed a willingness to give Trump a chance to prove himself. At that time, 46 percent of Minnesotans rated him favorably, with 43 percent saying they disapproved. That same poll, retaken last month, showed Trump 15 points underwater, with 56 percent of Minnesotans expressing disapproval. And wait until Trump’s tariffs hit the farming communities in southern and western Minnesota. Combined with higher interest rates, it could get ugly in a hurry in the farm sector. That won’t help Trump’s numbers, either.
Minnesota as Trump Country? It might make an eye-catching headline. But as political forecast, it’s mostly just spin.