Half and half; Minnesota’s greater metro divide

State PoliticsI think I’ll enjoy reading the work of new Pioneer Press reporter and veteran political data journalist Derek Montgomery. Today he’s up with a blog post showing the urban-rural divide in Minnesota. Simply put, he generated a graphic displaying population split using State Senate districts.

What’s striking about this exercise is that the divide here is roughly half — not total domination of the state by the metro area (two-thirds of New York State’s population lives in the New York City metro area), but not domination by the rural area and small towns, either (the Sioux Falls metro area is only about a quarter of South Dakota’s population).

My selection of “metro” districts was of course, somewhat arbitrary. You could easily expand the yellow to include more suburban areas, or subtract suburban areas to reduce it to the urban core. Both of those tell different stories of political geography, and I hope to revisit them over the coming months.

The fact that Minnesota is evenly divided between its metro area and its exurbs, regional centers and rural areas helps explain why an election in which a big GOP swing confined  primarily to rural districts could swung control of the House from DFLers, despite big wins by incumbent statewide DFLers.


  1. Montgomery’s article actually cooks the books a bit to make his point. As the comments on his article point out, he has excluded significant parts of the suburban ring of the Twin Cities in order to make his point.

    In reality, Minnesota is a predominantly urban state, with about 70% of the population living in the seven county area, Duluth, St. Cloud, and Rochester, and in Wright County, which is predominantly metro but stretches into rural. 75% of income taxes generated inside the state come from these areas, as does an even larger percentage of sales tax, and both economic and population growth are centered there.

    However, in Minnesota urban does not mean DFL, just as rural does not mean GOP. Large parts of the second tier of Twin Cities suburbs, St. Cloud, and Rochester vote GOP consistently. The Range is consistently DFL.

    There are complicated reasons for this, but in my opinion culture is the dividing point. Religious and social backgrounds and attitudes in St. Cloud, the outer ring of suburbs, and Rochester make people more inclined to vote GOP, just as the Range history of labor and unions makes it DFL. A few months ago, the NY Times had a very interesting article focusing on the northern outer ring of the Twin Cities and the disparity between people’s dependence on government programs in the region and their political rejection of those programs, at least for other people.

    In the last election, I believe — as commenters on this blog have noted on other entries — that the key issue for the GOP was same sex marriage, with many of the DFL losses occurring in districts where the DFL incumbent had voted in favor of same sex marriage in a district that had supported the constitutional ban. This is a parallel of national political history, when the Democratic “solid South” switched over a few elections to the Republican “solid South” following the passage of the Civil Rights act and the associated administrative enforcement. Given trends on opinion polling of Gay rights issues, I doubt that this trend will be as long lasting in Minnesota, since polling shows that even among GOP and evangelical young people gay rights are supported. The erosion of the Democrats into suburbs both in MN and nationally will also threaten this division of the state, as will increasing numbers of Hispanics in some more rural areas.

    Meanwhile, everyone is waiting for the Range to gradually revert to GOP/DFL voting pattens more typical for its demography. This time around, Mike McFadden managed to scuttle that trend with his comments about sourcing of steel pipe for pipeline construction, a view that is undoubtedly a heartfelt part of his neoliberal economic orientation but which was politically suicidal in Northeastern Minnesota, and which IMO also helped scuttle the Mills campaign, at least based on many comments I have heard from more independent voters in the area.

    In the end, the numbers suggest that the power split in Minnesota is less urban vs. rural and more cultural, and trends suggest that over time the erosion of some of these cultural values favors the DFL in the outer suburbs, St. Cloud, and Rochester, but the same cultural erosion favors the GOP on the Range, perhaps restoring the same political balance but with different partners.

    • Thank you for the conversation Gerald.

      I feel the need to point out that both Saint Paul and the Iron Range can be described as more (or equally) religious than the traditionally conservative voting areas you mentioned. Minnesota is a religious state.

      • Good point.

        Although religious beliefs tend to be important in culture formation, their impact seems to differ depending on other factors. Large numbers of Range and St. Paul Catholics part company with their religious leaders on politics, supporting candidates who support abortion, gay rights, birth control, and other policies that their religious leaders actively oppose. Other Catholics in St. Cloud and in the Minnesota River Valley are much more faithful to the dictates of their religion as it impacts politics. Having lived in all four places, I have to say that being Catholic has a vastly different cultural meaning in different places.

        So I am not talking about religious values per se, but rather religion as a factor in culture. In the US, the wind of culture is blowing to the left, in the form of the emerging opinions of young people, people of color, and women, eroding the GOP electorate in some traditional strongholds. However, in some areas — the Range, West Virginia, parts of the Rust Belt — the young are parting company with their elders as well, but in those cases that change is blowing in the GOP direction.

        When David Dill retires, the election to succeed him will be an important harbinger of the future of Range politics, and may well lead to GOP inroads in this traditional DFL stronghold.

      • David Gray says

        It isn’t entirely religious vs secular. It is orthodox historical Christianity vs liberal Christianity and secularism.

  2. Most of my hippie buddies from 60’s and 70’s have become conservatives or libertarians over the past 40-50 yrs. The guys who still vote DFL are pro life, pro 2nd amendment, for mining/logging and private land ownership. Their only reasons for voting DFL is unions and that is the way they’ve always voted. The Range may end up a GOP area but over all the State is liberal as they come and I don’t see that changing soon.

    • I agree on that, and would predict that although the Range may switch, that will be more than countered by shifts in the TC suburbs, St. Cloud, and Rochester.

      The reason the state is liberal overall is because, as noted above, the liberal enclaves contain most of the people, and I agree that that will continue to be the case regardless of trends on the Range.

      You are also exactly right that the Range vote is driven by the Range culture of union solidarity.

    • I agree on that.

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