Dancing horses for Nolan-Mills in MN-8

A dressage horse performs. Dressage is a complex sport involving highly trained horses performing planned routines. In a strange way, it's a better metaphor for MN-8 that the traditional "horse race." PHOTO: Chefsna, Wikipedia, CC

A dressage horse performs. Dressage is a complex sport involving highly trained horses performing planned routines. In a strange way, it’s a better metaphor for MN-8 that the traditional “horse race.” PHOTO: Chefsna, Wikipedia, CC

The race between U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN8) and Republican challenger Stewart Mills is already among the nation’s most expensive and closely watched Congressional races of 2016. Yet, most of the coverage has been tied to the speculation that the race was close two years ago and will probably be close again.

Today, I argue that the MN-8 contest is less about a horse race, and more about dressage (ie., fancy horse dancing).

But first, some working data. Over the weekend, KSTP/Survey USA released the only recent public poll in the Nolan-Mills race. In the poll, Mills led Nolan 45-41 over a period from Oct. 16-19.

Most of the polling in this race comes from within the political parties. A Mills poll showed Nolan in the lead back in April, but for the most part the candidates have kept their internal polling under wraps. That could change in the coming days as the campaigns try to show advantages, but maybe not. Both Mills and Nolan need this race to appear close for a very important reason. Turnout will drive the result.

Incidentally, SUSA is a good pollster, and they’ve been right about Minnesota before. But in the 8th, they’ve tended to show a Republican lean.

For instance, Mills led Nolan by 8 points at about this point in the 2014 campaign. Nolan went on to win by a point and a half in a difficult midterm election for Democrats. In 2012, SUSA underestimated Nolan’s support by about 7 points in his race against Rep. Chip Cravaack, the last Republican to hold this seat.

I’m not going to sit here and bark at you about the polls, though. Even if the 45-41 margin for Mills in this year’s poll is completely accurate, the most important factor is probably voters’ attitudes toward the act of voting. Because this isn’t a horse race. It’s dressage.

Dressage is defined thusly:

As an equestrian sport defined by the International Equestrian Federation, dressage is “the highest expression of horse training” where “horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of predetermined movements.”

MN-8 is not a race. It’s not a boxing match, even though it looks that way on TV. (Case in point, last night’s KSTP debate). MN-8 is a complex demonstration of political movements that can only be judged after the fact.

First, consider the geography. You’ve got the Iron Range and Duluth, of course, but also the Brainerd Lakes area and exurban counties like Chisago. You’ve got the North Shore and International Falls, Grand Rapids and North Branch. Some of those places behave like MN-6, others like MN-7. Duluth behaves like MN-4, while Brainerd is like MN-3.

Democrats on the Iron Range have different attitudes than those in Duluth or Brainerd. Republicans in North Branch might not be motivated by the same issues as those in Bigfork. Independents? Are we talking college professors or loggers?

I know all congressional districts have variation like this. But here’s an example. I grew up in Cherry Township, a mostly white, rural township known for growing hay. Cherry voted 58 percent to 41 percent for Nolan in 2014. Meanwhile, the demographically identical Rusheba Township along the interstate in Chisago County voted 55-37 for Mills. Which one did the pollster call?

I’m not trying to downplay the poll for Mills. You’d rather be ahead in the polls than behind, and the poll shows a close race that Mills could win. But I wouldn’t be overly discouraged if I was on Nolan’s team, either. The bigger issue — the one that surely drives these campaigns right now, is who executes their plan to turn out their voters in their unique geographical base.

Will Duluth turn out in big liberal numbers for Nolan? Or will it be outstripped by the exurban counties’ support for Mills?

Whose horse dances just so?

And will the fact that Trump is doing better in MN-8 than a typical Republican remain true on Election Day? That, too, may influence this race far more than the sea of TV ads.


  1. Bonnie Lokenvitz says

    ? exurban counties like Chicago? Spell check gotcha. Chisago?
    And then there are those poor red counties like Kanabec and Mille Lacs.

  2. This writing is very insightful and helpful.

    The irrational responses–the bigotry, the racism, the sexism, the gun nuttery, the support of I’ve-a-track record-of-stealing-from-the-people politicians–are not easy to understand–and obviously not limited to CD8. I think they must be connected to a profound lack of political education, which used to be provided, to some extent, by unions. People don’t seem to think about where their interests lie, as opposed to how their emotions are being manipulated. Of course, the media do not encourage people to do this.

  3. Kristin Larsen says

    I there there is a subtle but real difference in culture between the “Iron Range” and the Arrowhead, inclusive of Ely and Grand Marais as the Arrowhead’s major population centers. Iron Range towns from Babbitt to Virginia and Hibbing and the rest of that fascinating Mesabi Range area have history and tradition all of their own. One of my grammas lived in Hibbing and the other in Duluth after years of teaching all over the state, I knew their friends and lifestyles and while the pickles and the wedding dances were better in Hibbing, there is nothing like a gramma that’s a teacher, we were bffs. Grampa taught, was a principal and taught photography in CCC camps. We have hundreds of photos of life back then. Both grammas were poor as church mice. The eastern area of NE MN is less entwined with mining, more linked to the Superior National Forest, BW and Lake Superior. Its history involves more fishing, logging, camping, more recreation. While extractive industry in the form of logging has gone on in the eastern portion its stewardship has had a longer term view than logging in the western portion. On the Iron Range proper, the Mesabi Range, the mining focus and some demographics have brought traditions and life styles that are simply unique to the region. My family moved from the northwestern portions of NE Mn and during the depression found constant work in the Twin Cities till the air quality (pollen) required a move to Duluth (my brother had terrible asthma as a baby) where there was at the time less pollen. My parents both always worked, stressing to the rest of us that they worked at what they could find and they went where the jobs were. They didn’t “love” their work, they worked for wages. Both were union. Both were skillful, determined and loved the natural world. My husband’s family returned to Ely roots after working in the cities and around the time polio was a serious problem where recreation and running a lodge gave their families a livelihood in the summers and building homes was their work in the winter, all of their money was dear and carefully stewarded, they all paid their way even in the nursing home. Its hard to put into words the differences between the parts of the north, but I caution all to think of the “metro” with its differences and then simply apply that to the north but with fewer people and more squirrels. Just as there are differences between West St. Paul and Edina, South Minneapolis and Over North, and Hennepin Avenue so there are differences between the Mesabi range and the Arrowhead.

  4. After the 2020 census it will be very curious to see how this district is reshaped when Minnesota loses one of its congressional seats. (I’ll be shocked if it does not.)

    Will the new CD 7 stretch from east to west, covering pretty much the northern 1/3 of the state? From the Red River to Lake Superior? Combining Thief River Falls to Moorhead to Morris across to Duluth and the Arrowhead? If so, the demographics and communities of interest will be quite divergent, even more so than the current makeup of CD 8.

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