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A glimpse of Minnesota’s post-election path

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

Now that the surprising results of the 2016 Minnesota elections are behind us, what is the future of our state’s politics? Some hints lie in the post-election poll for KSTP-TV by SurveyUSA. The poll queried 650 adults, 581 of whom were registered voters, from Nov. 17 through Nov. 19.

SurveyUSA receives an “A” rating from statistics guru Nate Silver of the fivethirtyeight.com website.

Asked about their 2016 presidential vote, respondents had Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton tied at 39 percent each, a division close to Clinton’s narrow 46.4 percent to 44.9 percent victory in the state on Election Day.

The survey confirms that the two major parties in the state continue to lose adherents. Only 20 percent claim GOP identification, and 29 percent claim DFL identification. Those are remarkably low numbers. Fully 46 percent of respondents claim to be political independents — 15 percent independent, 16 percent independent leaning Republican and 15 percent independent leaning Democrat.

In terms of ideology, the poll reports 35 percent are moderates, 34 percent are conservatives (21 percent somewhat and 13 percent very) and 23 percent are liberals (15 percent somewhat and 8 percent very). These proportions suggest that, ideologically at least, Minnesota’s liberal reputation no longer fits its population.

The presence of so many independents and moderates suggests the state’s political future will be volatile as they move back and forth between the major party candidates over time. So to get some sense of the state’s future political course, it’s worth examining how independents and moderates responded to some of the survey’s other questions.

In their 2016 presidential voting, a plurality of independents preferred Trump over Clinton by 35 to 28 percent, but a whopping 19 percent of them said they voted for “someone else.” Moderates, however, preferred Clinton by 39 to 25 percent, though 18 percent of them also claimed to have voted for “someone else.”

The large numbers of independents and conservatives preferring “someone else” for president reveal how limited the major parties’ appeal is to these “swing groups” — and that suggests future unpredictability in state politics.

Independents and moderates are not very optimistic about the Trump presidency. Only 9 percent of independents and 10 percent of moderates think he will be one of “America’s greatest presidents.” Twenty-five percent of independents and 39 percent of moderates think he will be one of the worst presidents.

What about protesting Trump? That’s unpopular with both independents and moderates. Only 18 percent of independents and 22 percent of moderates “agree with the people protesting Donald Trump’s election,” and just short of 70 percent of each group disagree.

By more than 2-to-1 margins, both independents and moderates reject describing Trump supporters as racist, sexist or anti-gay. So most of them do not place Trump backers in a “basket of deplorables.”

Moderates and independents label health care as the most important issue for both state and national government to address. In terms of national policy, 22 percent of independents and 21 percent of moderates want to “repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act,” also known as Obamacare. Both groups, however, strongly support keeping two provisions of the act: mandatory coverage of those with pre-existing conditions and coverage of children to age 26 in their parents’ health plans.

Likewise, by far the top state priority for independents (39 percent) and moderates (42 percent) is “reforming health care,” with “passing a balanced budget” in second place. Transportation, sure to be a vexing state issue in coming years, ranks a distant third among both moderates and independents. Support for a gas tax increase to fund transportation projects receives the support of less than one-third of all respondents, and one-third of moderates and independents.

Gov. Mark Dayton has a healthy 51 percent job approval among all survey respondents, a level similar to that among independents (47 percent) and moderates (51 percent). U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken received approval ratings above 50 percent among all respondents and the moderate and independent subgroups. Klobuchar received the highest overall job approval among all respondents (60 percent) and among independents (64 percent).

Not many are optimistic that Dayton will get along with the new GOP Legislature. About half of all respondents, moderates and independents expect “gridlock” to ensue. If that happens, it will further stimulate future electoral unpredictability.

How do the views of Democrats and Republicans in the survey compare with this configuration of moderate and independent opinion? Republicans are farthest from the two “swing” groups in their views of Trump and Dayton. Republicans support Trump far more and Dayton far less.

Democrats are most distant from moderates and independents in their view of ant-Trump protests, support for the gas tax and perceptions of Trump supporters. DFLers support the protests far more, are much more likely to view Trump supporters as anti-gay, racist and sexist, and support higher gas taxes to a much greater degree.

Both Minnesota Democrats and Republicans have their work cut out in securing the stable allegiance of moderates and independents. It’s more likely that Minnesota’s politics will remain competitive between the two major parties as moderates and independents zig and zag between major party candidates in future elections.

Minnesota remains a state with deep ideological divisions between Democrats and Republicans. A large, volatile political center of independents and moderates will shape the state’s political direction in coming years.

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