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Commentary: Minnesota’s new political region: ‘Trumpland’

Editor’s note: Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. This column does not necessarily reflect to views of Capitol Report.

In Minnesota, we have the Twin Cities, the Iron Range, Lake Pepin and the “cabin country” around Brainerd and Lake Mille Lacs. On election night, another region in our state sprang to notice: Trumpland.

Trumpland’s onset first appeared with the arrival of the exit polls yielding a startling result:  Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were is a very tight battle to carry the state of Minnesota.  The exit poll proved to be pretty accurate, as Clinton eventually carried the state by a scant 1.5 percentage point margin, a much closer result than was evident in pre-election surveys.

This occurred despite her lopsided margins in and near the jurisdictions of Minneapolis and St. Paul. She carried the 4th Congressional District (St. Paul and environs) by a 61 percent to 30 percent margin and the 5th Congressional District (Minneapolis and environs) by a whopping 73 to 18 percent. The 3rd CD, encompassing southwestern and western suburbs, also went to Clinton by 50 to 40 percent. Despite this, Republican Rep. Eric Paulsen won a comfortable re-election against state Sen. Terri Bonoff by 57 to 43 percent.

The 2nd Congressional District, encompassing the southern Twin Cities suburbs and including counties along the Mississippi River all the way to Wabasha, was very competitive for the presidential candidates, with Trump edging Clinton by 46 to 45 percent. That margin resembled the narrow victory of Republican Jason Lewis over Democrat Angie Craig by 47 to 45 percent in the 2nd District race to succeed retiring Republican Jon Kline.

Beyond these jurisdictions lay the distinct region of Minnesota that can be termed “Trumpland.”  In the southeastern 1st District, Trump romped past Clinton by 53 to 38 percent and incumbent U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat, survived his contest with underfunded GOP rival Jim Hagedorn by less than 3,000 votes.

In the vast 7th District in western Minnesota, the incumbent Democrat Colin Peterson squeaked by his obscure GOP challenger Dave Hughes by 53 to 47 percent while Trump buried Clinton there, 54 to 38 percent.

A similar 54- to 38-percent Trump margin in the northeastern 8th District did not prevent incumbent Democrat Rick Nolan from registering a very narrow 2,000-vote victory over GOP challenger Stewart Mills. Incumbent Tom Emmer, a Republican, romped to victory in the red 6th District, which Trump won by 58 to 33 percent.

“Trumpland” delivered big for the GOP in state legislative contests. Most of the seat gains that allowed Republicans to amass a remarkable 76- to 57-percent majority in the House and take the state Senate by a one-vote margin, 34 to 33 percent, came from areas where Trump was dominating the ballot boxes. This year marks the first time the state GOP has won more than 70 state House seats in a presidential election year.

The 2016 Minnesota exit poll provides insight into the reasons for the appearance of Trumpland.  Overall, the exit poll contained 37 percent Democrats and 35 percent Republicans, a remarkably even split in a presidential election year. Previous presidential exit polls have registered Democratic advantages at more than double that 2-point margin.

Some “surprises” in national exit polls identified by National Journal politics editor Josh Kraushaar also showed up in the Minnesota exit poll.

Across the nation and in Minnesota, Republicans united behind Trump more than pre-election polls had suggested they would – 90 percent in the U.S. and 86 percent in Minnesota, compared to 89 percent of Democrats standing by Clinton in the U.S. and 87 percent in Minnesota.

White women registered greater than expected support for Trump, preferring him 53 to 43 percent over Clinton overall and 47 to 46 percent over her in Minnesota.

Nationwide, Trump won an astonishing 71 percent of non-college white voters and a remarkable 60 percent of those voters in Minnesota.

In two other ways, however, Minnesota diverged from some surprising national results.

First, Trump surprised by winning college-educated whites nationally by 4 percentage points, though he lost them in Minnesota by a 9-point margin.

Second, the state had more ticket-splitting than was evident in many national races.

Nationally, not much ticket-splitting seemed to occur. In U.S. Senate contests, states voting for Trump elected Republicans and Clinton states elected Democrats.

In Minnesota, however, U.S. House races demonstrated considerable ticket-splitting. Incumbents Paulsen, Walz and Peterson all won their races in the districts in which the presidential victory went to the candidate of their rival party by big margins.

Is Trumpland here to stay in Minnesota? Its emergence probably resulted from several short-term factors. Nationwide and in Minnesota, a desire for change and questions about Hillary Clinton’s trustworthiness promoted its arrival. The large concerns over the MNsure health insurance exchange, an exclusively DFL creation, also aided the GOP down ballot.

Will these factors persist? Perhaps not. Trump’s controversial presidency, won without a popular vote victory, will create new Democratic opportunities nationally and in Minnesota. The Minnesota Republican Party now has the burdens of fixing the troubled state health insurance system and working with liberal Gov. Mark Dayton — unenviable tasks.

These opportunities alone are hardly enough to ensure a DFL renaissance. The party has found its appeal greatly diminished in large sections of greater Minnesota. Its “metro-centric” agenda will remain a statewide problem unless policy adjustments are made to better address the concerns of many in greater Minnesota who believe they are falling behind – and thus opted for Trump and the Republicans.

So both parties face major challenges in Minnesota in the coming years. The future of Trumpland in our state will shape both parties’ fates.

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