Winning Rural Elections, By the Numbers…

Myth has it that Minnesota is a blue state, but thanks to some big data I just found, Minnesota is really kinda blueish purple. The big data has a sample size well into six figures, which means it’s way better than most of the polling data out there. That data shows that in voter self identification (voter ID), Minnesota dems (known around here as DFLers, for Democratic Farmer Labor Party, and proud of it!) have a mere 3% advantage over the GOP. If congressional elections were decided by voter ID, Minnesota would be sending two less congressmembers to DC and hold but 3 of Minnesota’s 8 seats in congress. Fact is, Minnesota dems are winning congressional seats in districts where we are at 7% and even 13% voter ID disadvantages… That’s 3 republican voters for every 2 democrats. Suffice to say, our DFL has done a heckuva job, turning out DFLers and winning over independents!

But we can do more… Let’s drill down a bit into two congressional districts and mine some more nuggets of electoral science. Minneapolis and inner ring suburb’s CD (congressional district) 5 is Minnesota’s most democratic, with 64% of voters IDing as dems. That means DFLers hold damn near every elective office in CD5 (I think there may still be a republican dogcatcher burrowed away somewhere who runs unopposed on the bottom of the 5th page of the ballot). So the CD5 DFL’s major function is to turn out it’s quarter million dems to vote in statewide elections, which explains how we DFLers have won and hold every statewide office. Those quarter million dems tend to need some encouragement to go to the polls, as only 61% bothered to in 2014. CD5 is the model of how modern campaigning is done with intense one on one contact with base democratic voters and an emphasis on “field”. There’s little attempt to persuade undecided or republican voters, as they’re only 18% and 14% of the electorate, respectively. In that political environment the base GOTV strategy that was partly invented here by the 2001 Rybak campaign and perfected by the Dean and Obama campaigns makes absolute sense.

My rural western Minnesota district, CD7, is a bit different… But 27% of the voters ID as dems, 29% undecided, and 40% GOP! Yet we’ve held the congressional seat and 2 of our 4 statewide candidates won the district. Clearly we are doing a great job of winning over independents, helped by the GOPs tendency to pick fringe candidates with little appeal beyond party loyalists. But we got clobbered in the state house races in 2014, losing by an aggregate 43% DFL to 57% GOP margin with several seats lost just in our CD. This despite fairly substantial application of the same field strategies that worked so well in CD5.

Why? 70% of CD7s dems turned out and voted even in this off year, so GOTV is less needed and rewarded than in metro CD5. So there isn’t a lot of room for improving our turnout, and even with 100% dem turnout the GOP would still beat us with a 70% turnout (they turned out 74%) So the key to winning CD7 is winning over and turning out undecided voters, and we’ve got more of them than we do dems in this district known for swing voting. That means instead of doorknocking and phoning “dropout democrats”, we need to be persuading and turning out undecided voters. That sounds like a tall order, but of those quarter million dems in CD5, at least half or 125,000 seem to need some persuasion to just get them to the polls. CD7 has a slightly smaller number, around 110,000, of undecided voters to persuade… A few contacts should seperate out the dem-leaning and shrink that universe to an even more managable number.

We also need to shift strategies to match the districts moderate tilt. This doesn’t mean nominating “Democrats In Name Only”… Tim Walz is pretty progressive, and he keeps getting reelected despite a substantial party ID disadvantage in his district. It means parking the Prius and not being afraid to be seen with a tractor or pickup. It means championing middle class issues like education and good jobs, while giving our dem candidates the space to vote their district or conscience regardless of the metro dems wishes. I’ve supported pro-life dems and dems who voted against marriage equality before and will again, because they voted dem values on the other 98% of the issues.

Minnesota CD7 is demographicly and politically similar to dozens of other rural districts, and the strategies that work in CD7 can be applied in the Dakotas, Iowa, and beyond. The formula for democratic victory in rural districts is simple: Candidates with mainsteam appeal, work the crowds at parades and county fairs, persuade the undecideds, and the base will take care of itself.

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