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Home » Elections, Geopolitics, North America, Northern California

Minnesota and Northern California: Political Twins or Political Opposites?

Submitted by on November 17, 2014 – 7:11 pm 6 Comments |  
CA and MN elections compared mapTwo U.S. states that largely bucked the Republican trend in the 2014 election were Minnesota and California, which count among the “bluest” states in the union. Since 1976, only Minnesota has supported the Democratic candidate in every presidential election. California has more recently entered the Democratic fold, having voted for a Republican presidential candidate as recently as 1988, but in recent years it has been a reliably blue state. In the 2014 election, California gave a higher percentage of its vote (59) to the Democratic gubernatorial candidate than any other state. In Minnesota, by contrast, the winning Democrat received only 50 percent of the vote, as opposed to the 44.5 percent received by his Republican opponent. Minnesota also elected a primarily Republican delegation to its state House of Representatives (72 Republicans to 62 Democrats) in 2014, whereas the incoming lower house of California’s state legislature has a 52 to 28 Democratic edge. California thus currently stands as the “bluer” or these two blue states, a standing also reflected in the 2012 Presidential election, in which Barack Obama took 60 percent of California’s vote as opposed to 53 percent of Minnesota’s.

Minnesota Voting and Popuation Density MapBut if California and Minnesota are both Democratic bastions, their actual patterns of electoral geography are quite distinctive. To illustrate these differences, I have prepared several maps contrasting the 2014 election results in Minnesota with those in northern California. I have focused on northern California rather than the state as a whole for three reasons. First, northern California (as I have defined it here) and Minnesota are of roughly equal size, making cartographic comparison relatively simple. Second, several southern Californian counties are so large, in both area and population, that they undermine simple comparisons using county-level maps. Third, the geographical contrast with Minnesota that I want to emphasize is more pronounced in regard to northern California than to southern California.

Northern California Voting and Population Density MapThe major difference in voting behavior between Minnesota and northern California centers on population density and proximity to major metropolitan areas. In both places, counties containing large cities strongly supported candidates from the Democratic Party. That, however, is where the similarity ends. In northern California, the suburban counties that ring San Francisco Bay also voted for democratic candidates, and many of them did so quite heavily. Northern California’s inner suburbs tend to be deep blue, while the outer suburbs and exurban fringe are at least light blue. Contrastingly, in Minnesota the outer suburban belt that surrounds the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul tends to vote for Republican candidates, often quite strongly. Indeed, one of the most conservative members of Congress, Michelle Bachmann, represents the northern suburbs of “the cities.” Bachmann did not run in 2014, but her Republican successor easily coasted to victory.

The contrast between the Minnesota and northern California also extends to rural counties. In northern California, largely rural counties tend to vote for Republican candidates. The main exception is the north coast, where lightly populated Mendocino and Humboldt counties are noted for their strong counter-cultural elements (they form the bulk of the so-called Emerald Triangle of widespread Cannabis cultivation). In contrast, many rural Minnesota counties still generally vote for Democrats, as is clearly evident on the map of the 2014 U.S. Senate election. This pattern holds both for agricultural counties in the west and south and for the mining/logging region of the northeast (which also includes the minor industrial/port city of Duluth). On the map of U.S. House of Representative delegations, California thus exhibits something of a classical “core/periphery” pattern (with a blue “core” and a red periphery), whereas in Minnesota one finds instead a core/semi-periphery/periphery pattern (with blue yielding to red and then to blue again as one leaves the metropolitan center).

1060 Minnesota N. California election mapMinnesota’s electoral pattern is the older of the two. Consider, for example, the 1960 presidential election, in which the Democrat, Jack Kennedy, narrowly beat the Republican, Richard Nixon. In the 1960 presidential contest in California, Kennedy won San Francisco as well as the (at the time) industrial East Bay counties of Alameda and Contra Costa, yet lost the suburban West Bay counties (Marin, San Mateo). Kennedy also took a majority of northern California’s rural counties, especially those in the sparsely populated far north. But by the end of the 20th century, northern California’s electoral geography had shifted, with the rural counties trending strongly Republican and the suburban counties trending clearly Democratic. The same transformation occurred in the northeastern U.S. states. In the south and much of the Midwest, however, suburban countries have stayed Republican, while White-majority rural areas have either remained or switched into the Republican camp. Minnesota is unusual in that many of its White-dominated rural counties continue to vote for Democrats. The 1960 presidential and the 2014 gubernatorial maps of Minnesota show remarkably similar patterns. One difference between them is a shift to more Democratic voting in the mostly rural southeastern corner of the state. Hennepin County, which contains Minneapolis, has also, much less surprisingly, moved in the same direction. Contrastingly, Republican voting has intensified in the countries that encircle the Twin Cities.

Minnesota 1960 2014 Election MapMinnesota’s distinctive voting behavior might be linked in part to its distinctive left-leaning political party: its state-level affiliate of the United States Democratic Party is actually the Minnesota Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party (DFL), which was created in 1944 by a merger of the populist, democratic-socialist Farmer-Labor Party with the Democratic Party. This legacy may be responsible for some of the DFL’s continuing clout in rural areas. Additional factors, however, are no doubt also in play.

Minnesota 2014 State House MapAcross the United States, White-dominated rural counties have been gradually moving into the Republican category. This process has played out at different times in different places. Much of Appalachia has only recently made this transition, which has turned West Virginia from a solidly blue to a solidly red state over the past 20 years. The one part of the country in which many White-dominated rural counties still tend to support Democrats is the Upper Mississippi region, anchored by Minnesota but also including parts of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Will these areas as well turn red in coming elections? Even in Minnesota, the Republican Party is gaining ground in such places, as can be seen in the map of Minnesota’s State House of Representatives 2014 election. And in the 2014 senatorial election in neighboring Iowa, this pattern was much more pronounced, as will be examined in the next GeoCurrents post.


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  • Hey Hay Hei Hai

    Living in Minnesota is terrible.

  • barzai

    It’s always a bit tricky to make generalizations about voting patterns in the US, especially if you aren’t intimately familiar with the antecedent history. Minnesota and Northern California are quite different in that Minnesota has a substantial population of Scandinavian-Americans, which are absent from California. Also, the Midwest as a whole has a substantial population of German-Americans who are not found in many other areas and certainly not in California.

    I could go on but there is enough material for a book in that, and indeed several such books are readily available. Although it is of course somewhat dated now, Kevin Phillips wrote a very interesting book in the wake of the 1968 elections (one of many such books, each with their own “slant” on what had happened, what could happen, and how to make it so) which discusses much of this. Michael Barone is also a very scholarly and deep thinker on these subjects, and Samuel Freedman has written several detailed books on specific subgroups and their changing voting patterns over time.

    The larger point to keep in mind is that “white” as a descriptor is just about as worthless as “black” or “Hispanic” or “Asian”: each of these categories has so many different sub-populations that to discuss them as a whole is meaningless. Even if you ignore the very substantial differences between the descendants of English, Scottish, Irish, Italian, German, Scandinavian, Polish, Croat, and many other sub-groups of “white” population, you still have to take into account historical factors that bear on voting patterns, such as the Civil War: there is a reason why Northern California used to be heavily Republican and Southern California Democratic as late as the 1960s.

    I do think Minnesota is something of a special case, thanks to–as you correctly observe–the influence of the Farmer-Labor Party. But I believe it’s less an ideological issue than a simple issue of mechanics: the Minnesota DFL has one of the few–perhaps the only–remaining rural machines in the country, which they inherited from the Farmer-Labor Party.

    We are conditioned to think of machines as a primarily urban phenomenon, but there were just as many rural as urban machines: you can still see traces of the old Republican machine in rural Pennsylvania voting patterns, for example. Sadly, nowadays most of the machines–rural and urban–are extinct.

    • These are interesting and important comments. I will do one more post on the 2014 election in order to address them.

  • Fwenchfwies

    A thought-provoking article as usual and also, as usual, one that whets my appetite only to end abruptly.

    Grumble, grumble, complain!!

    What do you think are the “additional factors no doubt also in play” in Minnesota’s white rural areas remaining blue? And further, what do you believe are the factors in white rural areas elsewhere turning red?

    I know that last question is the billion dollar question and would not expect THE answer or even an answer as such from you but your thoughts, references and honest (private?) speculation on the matter are something I would read with great attention.

    • It is something that I am trying to figure out, but I don’t have many good answers. The more recent post on Iowa does address these issue to some extent, however.

  • John B Gorentz

    I see that Otter Tail County in Minnesota was bright red in 1960, as it was this year. That surprised me a little bit, though I did my best as a high school student to help make it go Republican in 1964. It had sometimes seemed a hopeless cause.

    That county had a history of radical agrarian populism in the late 19th century and early 20th. Some people (I don’t remember who or where) used to point to the leftish populism of Minnesota and North Dakota as having its roots in Scandanavian and (in the iron range) eastern European immigrants who arrived in the United States relatively late and brought their new socialist ideas with them. Such things did happen, and I suspect one could make a good case for the agrarian protest era as having drawn on those roots.

    Whether any of that has been passed down to the present day in anything other than the name DFL, is probably a more difficult question. Otter Tail County had an active communist party, I think mostly in the Finnish areas in the northeast, as late as the 1930s.

    In the 1960s there were two farm groups, the Farm Bureau and the National Farmers Organization. The Farm Bureau in Minnesota and other states, had in the early 1930s been a supporter of FDR’s early New Deal Programs, but then drew back and took a turn to the right, where it still is (though not in a tea party sort of way, as far as I can tell). The NFO was more leftwing. I don’t know much about where it is today. As a high school student who worked for various local farmers during the summers, I knew these were touchy subjects, sometimes splitting families, and could get hot if one wasn’t careful.

    One thing that I had not known as a high school student was of the radical agrarianism of the late 19th century, or that the farmer who became Socialist candidate for governor of Minnesota had been involved in a violent 4th of July altercation among the various factions, close to our high school grounds. If my high school history teachers (good ones, both of them) tried to teach us about such things, I was not a receptive learner at the time.

    It would be interesting to trace the political heritage of these movements into more modern times, but I’m not sure how one would go about it, or even whether it is worth doing.
    The socialist candidate for governor was Charles Brandborg. I learned about him a few years ago when looking for bicycle destinations in my old home region. One of my blog articles about it is here: I’ve since learned more about Brandborg from his family papers at the Minnesota State Historical Society archives. He had a daughter who wrote quite candidly about her father and events in their family life (I don’t think those materials have been published anywhere) but if a topic doesn’t yield some good bicycle destinations, I tend not to go further. I do have a few more places in Otter Tail County to visit, though, concerning others in the agrarian protest movement. I’m now getting more interested in the history of the township level of government, and that is providing me with lots of riding destinations.