Presidential primary voting starts in Minnesota today. What do polls and data tell us?

By: - January 17, 2020 8:00 am

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ crushing vctory in the 2016 caucus could carry over to 2020, but the turnout of the primary is expected to be far higher than 2016.

Want to see the maps? Check out our slideshow at the bottom of this story. 

Minnesotans may not be first in the nation in the presidential race like Iowa, but we will be first to go to the polls. That’s because early voting starts Friday, 46 days before our March 3 presidential primary. 

Without good public polling of Minnesota, it’s hard to know who in the Democratic field has the advantage here. But if we examine the profile of similar states like Iowa and New Hampshire — where there is a lot of recent polling — we can surmise a bit about the presidential contest here. We can also look at recent DFL primary and caucus contests and other data — like educational attainment, demographics and property values — for more clues. 

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the top candidates in the Minnesota primary?

Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) looks on as South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Otterbein University on Oct. 15, 2019 in Westerville, Ohio. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

Polls show former Vice President Joe Biden is doing well with black voters, “somewhat liberal,” moderate and conservative voters, older voters and voters without a college degree.

In a recent Washington Post/Ipsos poll of Democratic leaning black voters, Biden leads with 48% compared to 20% for Sen. Bernie Sanders

Among “somewhat liberal” voters, Biden is even with Sen. Bernie Sanders at 26% in the Quinnipiac poll. 

In a recent Monmouth University poll of Iowa, Biden leads with 27% among those without a college degree. 

Among “moderate” and “conservative voters,” Biden leads with 29%, well ahead of the rest of the field, though this category of Democrat has shrunk somewhat over the years. 

Biden’s key weaknesses are the party’s left wing and its younger voters. Minnesota does not present much opportunity to run up the score with his best voter group, African-Americans, because Minnesota has fewer of them.  

Sanders has a relatively balanced coalition, including the party’s left wing and “somewhat liberal” voters, and those without a college degree. 

He also has a significant following in Minnesota, evidenced by his blowout win in the 2016 caucus over Hillary Clinton, and a raucous 2019 rally with a key endorser, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar. 

Sanders is strong among young voters, suggesting a mirror image of Biden’s strong support among the older demographic. 

Sanders receives 39% among the younger set, but just 7% among voters in his own age group in the Quinnipiac Poll.

The key difference between younger and older voters? Older voters are more likely to turn out, especially in a primary election.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who drew 12,000 to a Minneapolis rally last year, is strong among the party’s most liberal voters. Among those who consider themselves “very liberal” in the Quinnipiac poll, Warren leads with 38%, compared to 24% for Sanders, and 15% for Biden. 

Minnesota’s emerging voter profile may benefit Warren, who does better with college educated voters. The DFL electorate has shifted from having a lot of rural blue collar support to more suburban white collar support.

Warren’s weakness may be one of timing: After a strong surge in the fall, she’s been sinking. 

Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has also seen his pre-holiday surge wane. 

What about our Amy?

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) delivers remarks about Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh during a mark up hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Sept. 28, 2018.
WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 28: Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) delivers remarks about Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Klobuchar will be formidable in the DFL primary — but only if she’s still in the race. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The wild card in the Minnesota presidential primary race is Sen. Amy Klobuchar. She has won large majorities in her last two re-elections. If she’s still in the presidential race — a big if considering her standing in the polls in the early states — she would be positioned to win her home state. But unless she gains some fresh late momentum, it’s not clear she’ll be in the race come March.

Even if she drops out in February, she’ll still be on the ballot.  She could play spoiler if Minnesotans decide to support their senior senator in early voting, or vote for her out of loyalty even if she’s out of the race.

The lion’s share of Klobuchar’s endorsement support comes from Minnesota, where she has the support of four of Minnesota’s five DFL members of Congress, mayors of Duluth, Moorhead, Minneapolis and St. Paul as well as four of 6 statewide elected DFL officials. She also has the backing of former Vice President Walter Mondale. Outside of Minnesota, Klobuchar’s largest chunk of endorsers come from Iowa, where her campaign will need to perform well to have a path forward.

If she exits the race in February, all those prominent Minnesota politicians will have a chance to endorse someone else, which could swing the race, so that’s another unknown.

Although Klobuchar has frequently been polled in Minnesota by the Star Tribune and others, we have little quality polling of how she stacks up in a presidential race here. 

Our best insight into where Klobuchar’s support would come is by looking deep into the polls in her two strongest early voting states: Iowa and New Hampshire, which offer similar demographic profiles to Minnesota.

Klobuchar received 7% in two CBS/YouGov polls of Iowa and New Hampshire in early January. In those polls, Klobuchar’s support is most notably higher among those over the age of 45. Her support is evenly split between men, women, liberals and moderates and Democrats and Independents in the set of polls. The advantage for Klobuchar here is that voters over the age of 45 make up a considerably higher share of primary voters and caucus goers.

Klobuchar’s single highest polling number in Iowa came from a December WHDH 7 News/Emerson College Poll in which she received 10% as well as a January WHDH 7 News/Emerson College Poll in which she also received 10%. 

What about turnout?

Turnout is expected to be considerably higher for the primary in 2020 than the 2016 caucus. A primary is a much easier process, and you have weeks to complete the relatively simple task. In 2016, there were 204,610 votes cast in the Minnesota DFL caucus. The presidential primary is expected to see numbers closer to the 2018 DFL primary, which had 583,735 votes cast in the gubernatorial race.

I’m seeing a lot of ads for Bloomberg. What about him?

According to the sports and politics data web site FiveThirtyEight spending tracker, the wealthy former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is spending $120,000 for 208 airings of his ad called “sicker” between Jan. 11-15 in Minnesota. Another Bloomberg ad, “Because” aired 571 times between Dec. 10-28, costing him $166,000. Minnesota Public Radio’s Brian Bakst reported in November that Bloomberg’s initial ad buy totaled $584,000 in Minnesota.

All that spending will in some ways be a good test of the effectiveness of TV ads in political campaigns, because it’s unclear what kind of coalition Bloomberg has and what support he could possibly garner in a state like Minnesota without all that spending. 

But hey, where do I vote and stuff?

Find your polling place here

Some basics from the website of Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon on Minnesota’s first presidential primary since 1992: 

Registered voters will be able to vote at their polling place on presidential primary day or by absentee ballot in the 46 days before presidential primary day (starting January 17, 2020). A voter must request the ballot of the party of their choice. If a voter refuses to select a party, they will not be able to vote in the presidential nomination primary.

(More questions answered by the secretary of state here.) 

How are the delegates actually apportioned?

On the DFL side, the primary will determine the proportion of the 49 district-level delegates to the Democratic National Convention, 10 pledged party leader and elected official (PLEO) delegates and 16 at-large delegates.

The selection of delegates is a complex hybrid in which both the primary and February precinct caucuses will play a role.   

The pledged delegates themselves — meaning the actual people — will be chosen through the caucus system that Minnesota used in 2016. That means DFL activists will go to their caucus and work to get selected as a pledged delegate for their favored candidate, in hopes of making it all the way to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee. 

The difference between 2016 and 2020 is that there is now a primary election to determine who gets the delegates, rather than the caucus straw poll.

The threshold for receiving proportional delegates is 15% in each district for district level delegates, and 15% statewide for pledged PLEO and at-large delegates. If you don’t reach those thresholds, no delegates. 

The remaining delegates are the 16 unpledged PLEO delegates which are often referred to as “super delegates.” These are automatic delegates that are not pledged to a candidate based upon the primary vote. They were the source of significant controversy in 2016, when supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders said they were part of a rigged system by the party establishment to help Hillary Clinton. 

Unlike previous election cycles, these super delegates will be unable to vote on the first ballot at the national convention. If the convention is a brokered convention where no delegate receives a majority of pledged delegates, the super delegates will begin voting. 

Who’s going to win?

Forecasting is always a bad idea, but here goes: The most recent poll conducted of Minnesota was a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in November, which had Warren leading with 25% over Klobuchar’s 15%. That poll came during the high point in polling for the Warren campaign, which has now seen her polling fall below Bernie Sanders nationally and in the early states. Looking at the FiveThirtyEight polling aggregate for early November, Warren was within five points of Biden nationally.  That aggregate now has her ten points behind Biden. Warren is likely in somewhat of a weaker position than she was in November.  

Warren’s path in Minnesota would rely on expanding the coalition of Erin Murphy’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign while taking away some of the affluent and well educated suburban areas that helped Gov. Tim Walz win the primary. The problem in Minnesota for Warren may be a combination of Sanders’ support continuing from his 2016 caucus victory in Minnesota and his ideological overlap with Warren.  

Biden, meanwhile, will be splitting the moderate vote among Buttigieg and Klobuchar, if they are still in the race. If all three are in the race on election day, it will be difficult for any of them to win the state unless one can coalesce these voters into a single camp. Even if one of those candidates drops out by election day, a significant portion of the vote may already be cast by that time due to Minnesota’s early voting.

If the Election were held today, Warren and Sanders would potentially split enough of the vote to allow Klobuchar, Buttigieg or Biden to pull off a narrow victory. If by March, Warren or Sanders can consolidate a base after outperforming the other in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, then they would be a favorite to carry a plurality or even a majority of Minnesota’s pledged delegates. 

Presidential nominating contests can and often do change rapidly once the voting begins in the early states. Barack Obama’s Iowa victory, for instance, unleashed a torrent of free media that helped propel him to the nomination. 

Which is to say, much will change after Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina Democrats make their decisions. 

The Maps

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Aaron Booth
Aaron Booth

Aaron Booth is a Twin Cities actor and elections reporter and analyst for Decision Desk HQ who is a regular contributor to the Reformer.