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The political implications of the Minneapolis protests for Minnesota, explained

Minnesota barely stayed blue in 2016. If there’s a backlash to protests, could it turn red?

Terrence Floyd (center) attends a vigil where his brother George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis on June 1.
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The same day that Minneapolis police killed George Floyd on May 25, a poll was released showing a tight race between Joe Biden and President Donald Trump in Minnesota.

While thought to be a reliably blue state in presidential elections, Minnesota is emerging as a sleeper battleground in 2020. It is far too early to tell if, or how, Floyd’s death or the explosive Minneapolis protests that followed it could impact the November elections. But some political experts are wondering if peaceful protests mixed with violence and destruction could scare the state’s swing voters — particularly white suburban women — that Democrats need to win in the state.

“I think in the suburbs, people are saying you can’t have police officers asphyxiating somebody,” said David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University in St. Paul. On the other hand, he added, “I can see a lot of these suburban voters who voted Democrat in 2018 saying, ‘well gosh, maybe Trump can bring law and order here or bring some peace.’”

The Star Tribune/MPR/KARE 11 poll published on May 25 found the former vice president leading Trump by just 5 points, 49-44 percent, with 7 percent undecided. The poll had a margin of error of 3.5 points.

Minnesota has a Democratic governor and two Democratic US senators, but also a split state legislature, with the state Senate controlled by Republicans and state House controlled by Democrats. The 2016 election results showed the state pretty evenly split. That year, Hillary Clinton carried Minnesota by just 1.5 percentage points, winning just nine of its 87 counties. Trump’s showing in the state was surprising.

“Minnesota is one of those states where Donald Trump was quite successful in mobilizing racial resentment and building support on that,” said Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota. The question of whether the Minneapolis protests mean Trump will have more success with that message in 2020, is still unknowable.

“Going back to 1968 and looking at what Trump is trying to do but not well, there is this law-and-order card. It was terrifying to watch Minneapolis burn,” Jacobs added. “That has unnerved the suburbs and if that poll had run today, it would be a tossup.”

While much of the media attention has been on unrest and violence in clashes between police and protesters, Floyd’s graphic killing caught on video inspired many peaceful protests around the country — including some in predominantly white areas of the state like Duluth, or just across the border in Fargo, North Dakota.

“The violent protests, Trump will certainly try to use them for backlash purposes. So the question is will that be drowned out by the peaceful protests,” said August Nimtz, a professor of political science and African American studies at the University of Minnesota. He added, “The fact that Fargo and Duluth have seen actions suggest this may be something different. The breadth of the outrage is a reflection of the changing attitudes about race, and blacks being seen in a much more human way than was historically the case in the US.”

Whatever the outcome, how Minnesota votes in 2020 could have profound political implications for the rest of the country. The state has traditionally taken a backseat to its neighbors Wisconsin and Michigan during presidential races. But if Democrats were to lose Minnesota for the first time in nearly 50 years, it could be a tremendous blow to their hopes of retaking the White House.

“Minnesota could determine who becomes president if it’s close as 2016,” Jacobs said. If national Democrats get complacent, he added, “it’s a false complacency, Minnesota is quite winnable.”

Minnesota is a swing state

Every four years, Minnesota is typically written off as a solidly blue state, compared to the rest of the upper Midwest. There’s a reason for that; the last time Minnesota voted for a Republican presidential candidate, it was Richard Nixon in 1972.

But there’s plenty of evidence to suggest the state is turning purple. Minnesota doesn’t have political party registration, meaning there aren’t precise statistics of how many Republicans and how many Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor members (the state’s Democratic Party) there are. But the results of the last presidential election suggests Trump has considerable appeal in the state. Control of the state legislature is also divided, with Republicans narrowly controlling the state Senate and the DFL controlling the state House.

In 2016, Trump was just 44,593 votes shy of beating Clinton. Whereas Obama had won 42 of Minnesota’s 87 counties in 2008 and 28 of them in 2012, Clinton won just 9 in 2016. Clinton eked out a win relying on the most populous, blue areas of the state around Minneapolis and St. Paul, but staring at the 2016 Minnesota electoral map was like staring at a sea of red.

There are a few factors to help explain this shift. Minnesota is historically a very white, protestant Christian state that has diversified rapidly in the last few years as immigrants from Somalia, Cambodia, and Latin American countries have settled there.

Politically, the state can be divided into the blue areas around the Twin Cities, and a more purple area around the northern Iron Range that was historically Democratic and union-heavy but has trended red in recent years. There’s also the southern part of the state that is reliably Republican, but is also diversifying in some cities where immigrants work at meatpacking plants like Hormel in Austin, Minnesota.

The swing areas, Schultz and Jacob agreed, are suburban areas around the Twin Cities and places like Rochester, Minnesota (home to the Mayo Clinic).

“The battleground now is mobilizing the bases and capturing suburban swing voters,” said Schultz. “We’re really looking at the battleground being suburban women. It’s not so much the suburban males.”

The rapid diversification of such a white state helps explain Trump’s sudden 2016 rise in a traditionally Democratic state, Jacobs said.

“Trump was very effective in using his ethnic nationalism to trigger that racial resentment and to portray himself as someone who was going to stand up for white voters,” Jacobs continued. “Minnesota is vulnerable to that, particularly in areas that are experiencing economic anxiety and where you started to see diverse populations move in. I think there’s a risk the protests could be used that way, particularly the arson, the apparent lawlessness in the streets.”

The question is whether the fallout from the Minneapolis riots could help boost him again.

The swing voters to watch are suburban women

While Trump and the GOP’s effort to stoke fears about immigrants may have worked politically in 2016, it did not appear to work during the 2018 midterms. The GOP ran a playbook of fear about Latin American immigrants arriving in caravans and Democrats letting violent criminals run amok in the streets.

As Vox’s Dylan Scott wrote:

If you were to distill the prevailing Republican campaign message for the 2018 midterm elections to one image, it would be this: a hooded figure in the shadows, machete (or knife or bladed fingers) in hand, waiting to pounce if the wrong candidate wins.

Life is a horror movie and it’s Democrats behind the hockey mask. Vote Republican.

Meanwhile Democrats ran on a message focused on health care, infrastructure, and eradicating DC corruption — and they won across the country. That 2018 midterms win was powered by suburban women, and happened in no small part because of active distaste and disgust with Trump himself.

In Minnesota, Democrats flipped two Republican congressional districts in the suburbs, but Republicans also managed to flip two Democratic districts, including a previously reliable one on the northern Iron Range.

“Nobody should forget we won two seats in Minnesota, but we also lost two seats,” said Matt Fuehrmeyer, the former research director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2016 and 2018. “The parties broke even in the congressional map.”

The question in this year is whether Republicans try the same playbook with the Minneapolis protests as a backdrop, and if they are more successful. Trump’s presidential campaign and the Republican National Committee are already playing aggressively in the state, hoping to complete the first Republican flip of the state in nearly 50 years.

“I still don’t think Democrats should sleep on Minnesota,” Fuehrmeyer said.