How times have changed. Barely a month ago Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s presidential campaign was on fire. He was near the top of national polls for Republican contenders, doing well in New Hampshire, and leading in Iowa. Then Trump happened and now Walker’s campaign is flickering, ready to flame out. Even his faulted firewall in Iowa is gone. So what to do? If you are a Republican in Wisconsin running for president do what makes the most sense–go to Democratic Minnesota to rekindle your fire. And so he did that recently, seeking to revive his presidential fortunes, hoping for some national media attention in Minnesota while Trump and the other
Whether making Minnesota his new firewall will revive his presidential hopes or demonstrate how desperate he is, only time will tell. Yet his visit underscores a broader and more interesting question–Is Minnesota a swing state open to possible Republican pick up in the 2016 election? The short answer is no.
Minnesota is perhaps the most reliable Democratic presidential state since 1972. Back then it went for Nixon over McGovern, and it has been reliably Democrat since then, even voting for Walter Mondale in the 1984 Ronald Reagan blowout where the Democrats only won this state and the District of Columbia. Yet for years Republicans have hoped the Minnesota would flip presidentially. They look to state races where Republican governors and US Senators have won. A state with often an equal number of Republican and Democrat US House members, and a state legislature that has flipped party control several times since 1998. Additionally, Minnesota is a great source of money for Republican fundraising. Given all that, of course the state should be prime to go Republican.
Such thinking prompted the location in 2008 of the Republican National Convention to be held in St Paul. But the convention did no good. In 2004, after John Kerry won Minnesota by 3.5% over George Bush in the former’s losing presidential campaign, in 2008 Barack Obama bested John McCain by 10.24%. Holding the RNC in Minnesota actually led Republicans to do worse. In addition, 2012 prompted Republicans Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann that their successes in Minnesota could launch a presidential campaign. That worked well. And even in 2012 Mitt Romney made Minnesota one of the few states where candidates campaigned during the general elections, again to no avail. Minnesota does not look flipable, at least for the near future.
Stacey Hunter Hecht of Bethel University and I will have out in October a new book Presidential Swing States: Why Ten Only Matter. We examine a real simply question: Why is it that the presidential race is effectively over in 40 states and why is it that only ten swing states really are the site of serious competition in presidential races. We seek to understand the phenomena of what it means to be a swing state, looking at patterns in presidential voting in elections since 1988. When such an examination is done, there is no surprise that states such as Ohio and Florida are at the top of the list as strong swingers, with our neighbors Iowa and Wisconsin weaker swingers. But why? What makes a state a swinger and does Minnesota share any of those characteristics?
State states have many factors that are idiosyncratic, such as Iowa’s caucuses, New Hampshire’s first primary–both create energized and highly mobilized and competitive political parties. But more generally, swing states are those with states that have major party enrollments that are close, with a large and fluid set of independent swing voters. Swing states also appear to have many diverse regions in the state which allow for the major parties to establish political bases, and these states have parties have been competitive in local and non-statewide races.
So far all of this does describe Minnesota, yet what excludes Minnesota from the swing state category is ideology. By that swing states are those where the political ideology of the median voter in the state is close to the ideology of the median voter nationally. More importantly, swings are states where the presidential candidate of the Republican Party is to the right of the median state voter, or the Democratic candidate too far to the left. One also needs to look at how the ideology and candidates produced by the national parties compare to the ideology of the state parties.
What has happened since 1972 is that the Minnesota DFL enjoy a small but still significant lead in party registration in the state which benefit them during presidential cycles. Second, the state is generally more liberal ideologically than the rest of the nation. Three, the Republican presidential candidates have generally been further to the right than the median in Minnesota. Put simply, the DFL has a bigger presidential base to mobilize and the national Republican Party nominates candidates further to the right that the average swing voter in Minnesota. Together, such a strategy is a sure loser.
Demographics and ideology might change Minnesota in the future, but at least for 2016 the prospects of a Republican flip are slim. The GOP appears determined to nominate a candidate who will be far more conservative than the average Minnesotan. Yes perhaps the Democrats might pick a bad candidate and change the dynamics, but baring that and several other possibilities, even if Scott Walker is successful in making this state his new firewall to revive his campaign, a Republican saying they won over Minnesota is probably not going to get them far in winning over the party or in winning the general election.