Our district is pretty much the western half of Minnesota, and per the census one of our country’s most rural. It’s rated R+6, and fortunately democrat Colin Peterson has been able to hold the seat for a couple decades now, and usually by a good margin. But in 2016, Colin was one of the few rural democratic incumbents surviving, and by a mere 6% margin while Hillary barely won 30% of the district’s votes. What the heck happened?
We usually look at election results as percentages, but in this case it’s more instructive to use raw vote numbers, which I’ll round to thousands, as in “100k”. Let’s use the first election after redistricting, 2012, as a baseline. Total vote was around 328k, with Romney getting 180k to Obama’s 148k. The U.S. Senate race saw a forgettable GOP challenger garner 116k votes to Klobuchar’s 200k. In the Congressional Race, another forgettable GOPer got 114k votes to Peterson’s 198k. Do the math and you’ll find that over 60k voters or about 20% voted republican for president then crossed over and voted democratic for senator and congress. The base GOP vote was 114k, and the base democratic vote was 147k.
Come 2014 and total vote was down to around 240k, with the usual forgetable GOPer scraping up 148k votes to Senator Franken’s 116k. GOPer Westrom provided a better (financed) challenge than usual, winning 110k votes to Peterson’s 131k. We had statewide races for governor, etc. in 2014, with the GOP challenger winning 122k votes to incumbent democrat Dayton’s 106k. The base GOP vote was 107k, down a mere 7k from 2012. The base democratic vote was a disaster, down 54k to 94k for our Secretary of State candidate who fortunately won statewide. We lost several downballot state house seats and the majority with them.
2016 saw votes cast slightly surpass 2012 by 2k to 330k. But Trump was the top GOP vote getter with 208k, 28k better than Romney got. We had no statewide races, and an underfunded as well as forgetable GOP congressional challenger got 157k votes to Peterson’s 174k. The base GOP vote was up again by 49k to 157k , while the base democratic vote was by only 11k to 105k. Downballot we lost more legislative seats and the senate majority too.
So what the hell happened?
Conventional 21st century Democratic campaign “wisdom” is that elections turn on turnout. That explanation might account for our 2014 defeats, But 2016 turnout exceeded 2012 turnout by around a percent in a rural district that is probably losing population, and Minnesota’s turnout was a tops in the nation 75%. Looking at the one candidate who ran district wide in all three elections, Colin Peterson’s winning vote dropped 67k from 198k in 2012 to 131k in 2014, in line with the acknowledged 30% or so drop in democratic turnout in Minnesota in 2014. Peterson gained 43k votes between 2014 and 2016, still managing to win against a more poorly prepared and funded GOP opponent. At the top of the ticket, Hillary got 43k votes less than Obama got in 2012, about a 13% shift of the total vote from Democratic to GOP.
So while we can maybe attribute a couple percent of Hillary’s loss and Colin’s close call to improved GOP turnout, it appears our real problem was a candidate at the top of the ballot who simply dragged the whole democratic slate down in this rural district. Credit must also be given to the state Democratic party and it’s House and Senate caucuses who after promising increased help for rural candidates went back to their habitual metrocentric campaign prioritization. Not that they helped much anyway- They poured massive spending and hordes of doorknockers into state house district 17B, only to lose by just about exactly the same 20% margin as the candidate they largely ignored in neighboring and politically similar district 17B.
Want to win back rural districts and become a majority party again? Put candidates at the top of the ballot that at least don’t turn off rural voters!