Today is election eve and, like most of you, I’m all charged up about what could, would or should happen tomorrow. On the Iron Range, I don’t expect any surprises in the legislative races. I also expect U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar to enjoy another easy re-election. The most interesting story on the Iron Range will be how it votes on the Presidential and U.S. Senate races. I predict that Barack Obama and Al Franken will carry the area, but the margins are what’s important. Press coverage, conventional wisdom and (until the economic crash) older polls indicated problems for Obama because of his race and Franken because of his comedy career. More recent internal (largely anecdotal and/or unprocessed internal polls) data show Obama holding up well, though with softer than average numbers, and Franken a little bit behind where he should be but still in the hunt for big numbers.
I’ve identified seven Iron Range area precincts, all of which represent different factors I’m looking for as returns come in Tuesday night. If I had to bet a paycheck, I’d say these precincts hold within five points, one way or the other, of the 2004 presidential results and a little less for Franken in the U.S. Senate race. But if a majority of these precincts drop dramatically away from their DFL vote levels, you might see a tighter statewide race than expected on the presidential level. If they expand so much as a sliver toward the DFL, you can count on big DFL win up and down the ballot. The Senate race will be especially hard to read, but if Franken is within 10 points on any of these numbers, I’d say he’s on route for a narrow victory.
Why these precincts? Because I’ve either lived or worked in all of them and they all represent something specific, both electorally and sentimentally.
Keewatin (Itasca County, House 3A)
This small town is in Itasca County. It’s where my mom’s family is from and, when I was brought home from the hospital in nearby Hibbing, my parents lived briefly in Keewatin. This is a bedroom community that has a taconite plant practically in town. Lots of retirees live here, including the group that lost their pensions when National Steel went bankrupt. In 2004, John Kerry won here 80-20 percent. Keewatin is not huge, but it joins towns like Nashwauk, Bovey and Chisholm as a rock solid DFL bastion.
Hibbing P10 (St. Louis County, House 5B)
Hibbing has 11 precincts and P10 is right smack in the middle of town. I lived and voted here until about three years ago. The houses are only a few feet apart, the people who live here are fairly representative of the larger Range towns, and it’s another strong DFL precinct. Kerry won here 68-31 percent.
McDavitt Township (St. Louis County, House 5B)
I grew up out here. At the risk of sounding like John Edwards (pre-affair), we lived in a trailer on my family’s junkyard. This is boggy terrain where the roads run parallel with the taconite trains all the way to Proctor and Duluth. Though 15 miles south of any Range town and very rural, McDavitt (known locally as “Zim”) is close to United Taconite’s pellet production plant and remains largely DFL. Kerry won here 66-32. It’s on my list because if there was any softening of DFL support, we’d probably see it here before we’d see it in the towns.
Virginia Precinct 5 (St. Louis County, House 5A)
Virginia P5 is a lot like Hibbing P10 on paper. Of Virginia’s five precincts, this one, where Kerry won 66-32, is the mean — two are slightly (only slightly) more GOP and two are slightly more DFL. I want to include Virginia because the Mesabi Daily News, the Range’s biggest paper which is located there, has been a dumping ground for some of the most vicious anti-Obama letters to the editor in the state and the paper endorsed McCain Sunday. Usually, the voters of Virginia refute the paper; we’ll see if that holds. I also include Virginia because it was the first town I ever canvassed. Lots of walking and knocking downtown south of Chestnut across to the Highway 53 overpass.
Fayal Township (St. Louis County, House 5A)
My family moved to Fayal after the junkyard tanked. It’s a mix of upper middle class lake home owners and rustic bluecollars like you see in McDavitt. My grandparents still live here. I’m throwing this in as a control. Kerry won here 64-34.
Grand Rapids Precinct 1 (Itasca County, House 3B)
You’ll hear many colorful arguments about whether Grand Rapids is part of the Range or not. Legally it is and for today’s purposes we’ll go with that. Grand Rapids is the most conservative of the large Range towns and areas directly north, west and south lean Republican. Kerry won this precinct 57-43. Todd Palin came to Grand Rapids recently and Norm Coleman’s been here several times. Any GOP shocker starts in Grand Rapids.
Balsam Township (Itasca County, House 3A)
I live in Balsam now. This place is a good representation of the rural townships just north of the western Range where traditional Iron Rangers are mixed with a much more conservative blend of retirees, loggers, trappers and Christian fundamentalists. George W. Bush won this precinct 53-47 in 2004 and I predict that McCain will pull out a similarly close victory here in 2008. If Obama wins Balsam by so much as one vote, Katie bar the door because we’re rolling in our 5.0 with the rag top down so our hair can blow. Likewise, if McCain breaks much above 60 I think you’ll see some general shaving across the region in similar rural townships that could lead to softer numbers in the 8th CD for Obama and Franken.
Analyzing these precincts hinges on the theory that for Democrats to win in Minnesota they must dominate the Iron Range by huge margins. In truth, another theory is that the general population loss in this region could mean that the margins of DFL victory here are less important than those in DFL-trending suburbs, Rochester, St. Cloud and Duluth. I don’t know yet, but I might on Wednesday. But if you want to know the score on the Iron Range, check here on Election Night. I do believe that the Range stays solidly DFL, perhaps losing a few statistically insignificant points because of the unique nature of Obama’s and Franken’s respective candidacies. I hold hope that the DFL index holds firm. I acknowledge that in many circles there are fears of the area being a slightly more sky-like shade of blue on Tuesday. Only time, and beer, will tell.
I offer no specific predictions about any of these precincts, other than that if they hold, Barack Obama will win Minnesota by a lot and Al Franken will win by a little. Stop back here on Election Night for my Range analysis.