Analysis: Population, demographic and voter registration data are ominous for the Minnesota GOP

Line of people waiting to vote
Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images.

Minnesota has not been the fastest growing state in the nation, but the North Star State has grown at a steady clip over the past decade, with most of the growth in the Twin Cities metro. And, there have even been some pockets of population loss in rural areas.

As we consider the state’s politics, we should not forget these key questions: 

Where are the new voters? And what types of voters cluster in those cities? The answers are important not just as we forecast the November election. They’re also a reflection of the state’s population changes, which help us answer a more far reaching question: What will new congressional and legislative district maps look like after the 2020 census? The Legislature — or perhaps the courts — will begin drawing maps next year, with a February 2022 deadline.  

Since the beginning of November 2016, Minnesota has seen an increase of 191,403 registered voters. More than 60% of that growth — 120,466 voters — has been within the seven-county metro, which is the stronghold of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. 

Going back to November 2000, the state has added 616,235 registered voters, nearly 60% of them in the seven-county metro. The current statewide share of registered voters as of September 2020 in the seven-county metro is about 56.5%. That’s up from 56.1% in 2016 and 54.1% in 2000. 

There are a few jurisdictions that cast fewer votes in 2016 than they did in 2000. Otherwise the growth has been pretty much across the board, but it’s also been uneven. Minneapolis cast 44,375 more votes in 2016 than it did in 2000, and Woodbury cast 35,774 more. And both cities became more Democratic: Woodbury moved 20 points to the left in presidential margin from 2000 to 2016, while Minneapolis moved 24 points. 

This growth of DFL areas at the same time as those areas have moved left helps explain the DFL’s success, not having lost a single statewide race since 2006. 

Over the past two decades, the DFL has made significant gains in the Twin Cities to offset losses in greater Minnesota. In 2000, Al Gore carried the seven-county metro by 6.1 points while winning the state by 2.4 points.  

In 2016, while winning the state by a narrower 1.5 points, Hillary Clinton carried the seven-county metro by 19.5 points. Had the seven-county metro not grown at a faster rate that greater Minnesota, the state might have gone the way of Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in 2016.  While there is some polling evidence in Minnesota and nationally to suggest that Joe Biden has improved over Clinton with white rural voters and white voters without a college degree, his growth appears to be continuing in urban and suburban areas.  

Outside of the Twin Cities metro, the DFL has another bright spot in Olmsted County. The city of Rochester contains a relatively large share of college-educated voters as compared to the state as a whole. As the DFL has made gains with that block of voters since 2000, the county shifted to the left by nearly nine points in the 2016 election. Since 2000, Olmsted has added 25,825 voters, with 7,420 of that coming since November 2016 alone. This makes Olmsted County the county with the ninth-largest net voter registration growth in the state. 

In total, 57 counties in the state of Minnesota have seen voter registration growth since 2000 and 75 have seen growth since 2016. All seven counties of the seven-county metro are in the top 10 in voter registration growth since 2000. Plus, Olmsted County, Wright and Sherburne counties, which contain some of the northern exurbs. The pattern has held since 2016.

Of the nine counties to move to the left between the 2000 and 2016 Presidential elections, only Mahnomen County saw a net loss in voter registration. 

Now consider where the state is moving to the right: Of the 78 counties to shift to the right since 2000, fully 30 of those counties have seen a net loss in voter registration. Faribault county lost 1,569 voters, even as it shifted 25.4 points towards Trump in 2016 from George W. Bush’s 2000 performance. 

We can expect to see further registrations ahead of the October deadline as well as on Election Day. A record number of Minnesotans are expected to vote early in 2020, but there will still be many Minnesotans that will go to the polls on Election Day. With the larger number voting early, however, we can expect the Election Day registration numbers to be lower than the 353,179 we saw in 2016, and 213,999 in 2018. 

If the new registrants are in the seven-county metro, this would likely be more ominous news for Minnesota Republicans, not just on Nov. 3 — but for a decade in the future. 

The registration increases and decreases by county have largely followed population growth. Population growth, which determines redistricting, is a leading indicator — it takes awhile for a population to age into the electorate.

Currently, the seven-county metro contains at least a portion of five of the state’s eight Congressional districts; four of those five are held by the DFL. In the state House, 75 of the state’s 134 districts are at least partially within the seven-county metro. About three-fourths of those are currently held by the DFL. In the State Senate, 39 of 67 districts are in the seven-county metro and 27 of those 39 are held by the DFL. 

Current population estimates by county indicate that 80% of the net population growth has come from the seven-county metro. If that trend is borne out in the census that is now wrapping up, the number of state legislative districts contained within the seven-county metro will continue to grow from the 56% of the state House and 58% of the state Senate districts it currently holds. 

The population shifts add to the stakes in this fall’s elections. If the DFL can flip the state Senate, they will be able to largely control the redistricting process in Minnesota. If the GOP can hold on to the Senate, they will likely be able to force another decade of court-drawn maps, which would be a repeat of 2010. 

In addition to regional growth, other demographic changes in Minnesota are encouraging for the DFL: The growth in the number of non-white voters and voters with a college degree. Since 2000, the state has become 4.4 points less white — 88.2% to 83.8% — and added eight points to the percentage of adults 25 years of age or older with a bachelor’s degree or higher (increasing from 27% to 35%). In neighboring Iowa and Wisconsin, which flipped to Trump in 2016, those numbers have been moving at a slower rate. Iowa has become 3.3 points less white and seven points more college educated, while Wisconsin has become 1.9 points less white and 7.1 points more college educated.

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