Why Minnesota Republicans can’t afford to write off the Twin Cities

By: - November 15, 2022 8:59 am

GOP gubernatorial nominee Scott Jensen and running mate Matt Birk hold a press conference at the Minnesota State Fair on Tuesday, Aug. 30. Photo by Michelle Griffith/Minnesota Reformer.

The urban-rural divide in Minnesota and U.S. politics has only grown starker in recent years. In elections going back a decade or more, a favorite subject of political reporters and pundits has been Democrats’ supposed alienation of rural folk. Reporters have visited rural diners, they’ve visited other rural diners, and sometimes they even went to rural diners. In an era of razor-thin margins, the thinking goes, every vote is precious, and Democrats — often caricatured as coastal liberal elites — must reconnect with rural America.

Washington’s political class seemed far less interested in examining the divide from the opposing perspective: Was the Republican party’s extremism at risk of turning off voters in urban areas, which happen to be home to the vast majority of the population? Data from Minnesota suggests that while rural votes are, indeed, important for Democratic politicians, Republicans are even more strongly reliant on urban ones.

Take a look, for starters, at this county-level map of votes for Gov. Tim Walz. It shows about what you’d expect: massive numbers in the Twin Cities, with much smaller tallies in the more sparsely populated counties of greater Minnesota. Walz pulled about two thirds of his total votes from the seven-county Twin Cities metro alone.

Now, compare the map above with the one below, showing votes for GOP nominee Scott Jensen drawn to the same scale.

Like Walz, Jensen’s voters are concentrated in the Twin Cities region. While Jensen’s totals are skewed more toward greater Minnesota than Walz’s, the overall pattern is the same: The bulk of their voters are concentrated in high-population areas.

This isn’t likely to come as a surprise if you understand how population density works, and that in terms of raw numbers, population centers are simply going to have a lot more people of every stripe: Democrats and Republicans, men and women, white people and Black people, what-have-you. No matter which type of person you’re counting, you’re going to find more of them in the cities.

But it’s a point that nevertheless tends to get overlooked in political discourse. Jensen spent much of his campaign portraying Minneapolis as a crime-ridden dystopia, enabled by DFL policies and the people who vote for them. With that sort of relentlessly negative messaging, it’s no surprise that he underperformed in the metro area relative to 2018 Republican nominee Jeff Johnson.

Another way to illustrate this: Jensen drew roughly 44% of his entire vote from the seven-county Twin Cities metro area. Tacking on the other urban clusters in the state — Duluth, Rochester, Moorhead and East Grand Forks — gets him up past 70%. If it seems like political malpractice to bash the “urban” regions that are home to more than two-thirds of your support, that’s because it is. Jensen’s poor showing last week underscores that fact.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Christopher Ingraham
Christopher Ingraham

Christopher Ingraham covers greater Minnesota and reports on data-driven stories across the state. He's the author of the book "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now," about his family's journey from the Baltimore suburbs to rural northwest Minnesota. He was previously a data reporter for the Washington Post.