All politics is (less) local on the Range, Minnesota and beyond

Andrew Gelman at the well respected FiveThirtyEight political data blog recently explored the old saying “All Politics is Local.” This is often considered a veritable commandment in political circles, but Gelman offers a new take. Gelman’s bold-face conclusion is:

“Politics is less local than it used to be.”

To the degree this saying was true, it is fading, he says. Political identity is increasingly influenced by ideological factors distributed from state or national political and opinion leaders. Local organizations less often deviate from these views and most candidates seeking anything beyond a city council seat must operate within those broad national parameters.

There are some valid criticisms in the comments to this article, particularly that testing what this phrase means with real data is hard to do. Gelman mostly shows that, over time, state and county election results deviate less often from presidential election voting patterns. In other words, if you voted for McCain in ’08 you were more likely than ever in recent history to vote for other Republicans down the ballot. Same deal on the Democratic side. 

I call attention to this article because it seems to validate, non specifically of course, some of what I’ve seen in election results here in northern Minnesota. Northern Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District was once known as a Democratic bastion even though for more than 20 years it’s been pretty tightly contested (albeit Democratic leaning) at the presidential level. Well, this year our longtime Democratic incumbent Congressman Jim Oberstar lost in stunning fashion to his relatively unknown Republican challenger Chip Cravaack. 

Republicans have made great amounts of hay out of this being a referendum on Oberstar’s last two years of votes. There were certainly some Republican leaning voters who moved in this way (some of my regular commenters here would be on that list) and some other Democratic voters who just plain didn’t vote. But really this effect wasn’t created by Oberstar. Rather, the effect was created by the rapid acceleration of voters following a uniform political ideology that began 10 years ago. And it’s not just an Oberstar thing. You can see similar things happening in legislative races throughout the state, whether they be D or R districts. 

I’ve been involved in local Democratic politics on the Iron Range for almost half my life now. The biggest motivators I’ve seen in recent memory were the Iraq war during the Bush presidency and the general concept of universal health care. Fewer union people were coming out to support unions. Fewer teachers and students were coming in hopped up about schools. When I’ve had cause to congregate with Republicans I hear more about taxes loosely, particularly anything that resembles wealth redistribution in their eyes, the omnipresent social issues like abortion and gay marriage, and more recently concerns over immigration policy. These are the issues I hear about from friends who attend the Democratic and Republican precinct caucuses in my area. 

The people who advocate for peace at Democratic caucuses or lament illegal immigrants at Republican caucuses are far more passionate than those who attend for local causes like roads, schools or quality of life issues. In fact, few attend regarding local issues. The ones who do — Democrats and Republicans — often leave feeling like they’ve been run through an industrial dryer.

I am seeing fewer Democrats holding a handful of “Republican” positions and far fewer Republicans holding anything close to a “Democratic” position. The independents in this equation are important, but an increasingly misfit lot. Some independents are like me, independent minded but holding a fairly consistent partisan voting pattern (And no, I know I can’t properly call myself a full independent). Others bounce back and forth, often for emotional or personal reasons, not something that fits into partisan indexes very well. 

But the days of local deviations on partisanship are waning. People’s identities and status, always important, now overwhelmingly influence how they vote. Large scale change will come only through long term demographic and economic trends. And that’s why, historically, the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama might be so worthy of study. They aren’t just presidents. They are versions of America in the minds of most voters. Because of the political challenges inherent with this environment I’ve come to forgive some, not all, of what I disliked about Bush and it’s caused me to have even more respect for President Obama. 

Though I’m sure 47-53 percent of you have a strong opinion about that. 


  1. Thank goodness that there is 2 parties that differ as much as they do. As a reformed, more informed ex-DFL supporter for years, I’m so relieved to have Cravaack represent us here in the 8th. I don’t want him going to DC and buying into anything the Left has to sell. You’re correct when you say national news and events sway local elections. After years of a Pelosi mandate of bigger government and 4 trillion in debt the past 2 years, the country was more than ready for a change. One last shot at Nutty Nancy, she criticized the newly elected 112 Rep house yesterday for not concentrating on jobs and preparing to over throw Obamacare?????? Did she not spend 18 months of the worse recession we’ve been through cramming health care down our throats? Where was the focus on jobs from Jan 09 thru 10? The balls of that lady are unreal. To bring this back to the 8th District, Oberstar was thrown out by us because he was a rubber stamp for the “lets grow government” crowd. He became a tone deaf elite, just like Nutty Nancy. Glad he’s gone.

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