Ever since I got my first World Almanac in 1990 I have compulsively followed Minnesota's county-by-county election returns, and beginning in 1997 when I got my hands on the Minnesota blue book, my fascination grew as I consumed election returns at the precinct level. In the years since, I have become more intimately familiar with Minnesota as I made a point of visiting every incorporated town in the state, learning its history and ethnic composition and drawing as many parallels as possible from this knowledge towards the communities' political leanings. Partisan loyalties seem to be in a constant state of flux as is the case in jurisdictions all across America and I thought it would be fun to handicap the election at a very specific county level for Minnesota in 2012 and see how close I get, dividing the counties into eight categories: Safe Obama, Likely Obama, Lean Obama, Tossup/Tilt Obama, Tossup/Tilt Romney, Lean Romney, Likely Romney, and Safe Romney. I'll be fairly conservative with my "safe" designations as nothing would be more embarrassing as decreeing a county "safe" for either Obama or Romney and then seeing the other guy win it. Specifics below the fold.
Safe Obama Counties
Carlton County (Cloquet, Moose Lake) MN-08
2008 Two-Party Vote: 63.7% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 70.7% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 65.2% Dayton
When you head north on Interstate 35, you can be sure you have officially and unequivocally entered the Northland when you reach the Carlton County line. It's the county just south of Duluth and there's a significant spillover of Duluth commuters living in the rural areas, particularly in the northeastern portion of the county, along with another reliable Democratic voting constituency on the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation. The county is heavily rural but is anchored by the unionized paper mill town of Cloquet, which John Kerry visited on the campaign trail in the summer of 2004. Almost every precinct in Carlton County is a Democratic stronghold and it's one of the few outstate Democratic counties growing in population, yet without any significant dilution of the Democratic voting habits as a consequence of the growth. Obama is not the most natural fit for the sensibilities of these populist economic liberals, but Romney is an avatar of what they despise, so I suspect Obama dominates by at least 20 points as Democrats always do here.
Cook County (Grand Marais) MN-08
2008 Two-Party Vote: 62% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 67.4% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 65.5% Dayton
At the northeastern tip of Minnesota, sitting on the north shore of Lake Superior and bordering Canada, is thinly populated Cook County. I have no idea what's going on here but this has gone from a swing county just 10 years ago to one of the best counties in Minnesota for Democrats up and down the ticket. During the 1990s there seemed to be a shift away from Democrats up here and, thanks to Nader getting 10% of the vote in the county, Bush beat Gore here. It's been nothing but Democrats since, however, and the tide seems to get stronger every election cycle with Cook County being Mark Dayton's second best county in the state in the 2010 gubernatorial race. At first I thought it was a result of this touristy county being deluged by liberal newcomers in the same way that Colorado's ski resort towns are, but the 2010 Census showed Cook County's population barely moved at all in the last 10 years. Again, I don't know what's going on here, but I do know Obama is assured of victory based on the direction it's been heading.
Hennepin County (Minneapolis, Bloomington, Eden Prairie, Brooklyn Park)
2008 Two-Party Vote: 64.6% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 67.1% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 58.5% Dayton
Minnesota's most populous county grows more Democratic with each election cycle, which has been imperative to offset growing Republican margins in the metro area's exurbs. At its core, Minneapolis is one of the nation's most liberal cities and, in a Presidential year, gives the Democrats a better than 100,000-vote margin right out of the gate. The city's inner-ring suburbs to its west and south have older populations and are not growing, but their Democratic leanings have also solidified in the last decade. The real movement has been in the second-ring suburbs westward of Minneapolis, however, which were solidly Republican even during the Clinton years but have moved closer to parity in the past decade, and in the case of bellwether Minnetonka, now go Democratic more often than Republican. The population growth in Hennepin County is occurring in the exurban western side of the county and while massively Republican, simply isn't able to keep up with the Democratic trendline everywhere else in the county. If Romney has any success at all in selling himself as a moderate Rockefeller Republican, he could make inroads in places like the aforementioned Minnetonka and the other upscale second-ring suburbs. Even if he does, Obama will still win Hennepin County by 20 points or so, but if he doesn't, expect Obama's margin to be more like 30 points. Incidentally, the last Republican to win in Hennepin County was incumbent State Auditor Judi Dutcher in 1998...and later in that term as Auditor, she switched parties to the Democrats.
Itasca County (Grand Rapids, Keewatin) MN-08
2008 Two-Party Vote: 56.6% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 64.6% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 59.6% Dayton
In northeastern Minnesota, Itasca County is the bridge between traditional lake-and-cabin country and the Iron Range. There's a little bit of everything politically in Itasca County, large in size and respectable in population for a county in northern Minnesota. There are more conservative precincts in the county's northwest side. There's a number of Leech Lake Indian Reservation precincts in the southwest side. There's the Democratic-leaning-but-not-too-strongly paper mill town of Grand Rapids which is the county seat. And in the eastern third of the county, you have the beginnings of the Mesabi Iron Range, and while there are no population centers of the Iron Range amongst them, some of the most ferociously Democratic communities in the Range can be found west of the St. Louis County line. Only when all these groups come together with one mind do Democrats dominate in Itasca County in numbers that in anyway resemble those of St. Louis County, but even if there's weakness in part of this coalition, the Democrats always have enough to pull out the win here. In this case, there's been nominal slippage for Democrats in the Iron Range in recent cycles and I fear we'll see a little more of that. I doubt Obama will win by the 19 points that Dayton won by in the Governor's race last year, but I suspect he'll still win by double digits.
Lake County (Two Harbors, Silver Bay) MN-08
2008 Two-Party Vote: 61.3% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 70.3% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 64.8% Dayton
Back in the 1980s, Lake County was the mini-me of St. Louis County, it's neighbor to the west with 20 times more people. It's still a strong Democratic county, but the 70-30 margins of the old days are no longer. The Lake Superior port town of Two Harbors up the road from Duluth is the population center, and was a focal point in the contentious Franken-Coleman recount when one precinct in the city boosted Franken's haul. Like most older union towns, Two Harbors is very gradually losing its absolute Democratic dominance. But up the road in the mining town of Silver Bay, a far greater erosion of Democratic strength has been occurring, the origins of which I don't quite understand. Democrats still win there, but often by single-digit margins in recent election cycles. Beyond that, there's a lot of Duluth commuters in the county's southwest side and it's a safe bet that even if the election cycle turns defensive, Obama should still win Lake County by 20 points, give or take.
Mower County (Austin, Grand Meadow) MN-01
2008 Two-Party Vote: 62.1% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 68.1% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 59.4% Dayton
The Democratic stronghold of southern Minnesota is Mower County, anchored by the city of Austin, one of America's largest meatpacking hubs and the birthplace of Hormel Foods. The area was permanently scarred after the 1985-1986 Hormel strike, one of the ugliest strikes of the last half century and the beginning of the end of the meatpackers' successful collective bargaining accomplishments which were dramatically rolled back in the 25 years since. Austin and its neighboring small towns, largely Irish and Catholic, still have heavy union influence among its older residents, but the commercial workers' union is almost comically weak at this point and the workforce of Hormel, the only major employer in the area, is rapidly becoming more ethnically diverse. In theory, this should spell good things for the Democrats in the years ahead, but I'm skeptical how many of the newcomers are voter-eligible citizens. This culture seems to be diluting Democratic strength in Mower County, and I suspect that every old Hormel union guy who dies off is a sturdy Democratic voter unlikely to be replaced. With all that said, Mower County remains a certain victory for Obama in 2012, but I'm not expecting the 2-1 margins that Democrats routinely scored in the 1980s and 1990s to persist.
Ramsey County (St. Paul, Roseville, Shorewood, White Bear Lake) MN-04
2008 Two-Party Vote: 67.3% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 69.5% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 63.2% Dayton
The city of St. Paul makes up more than half the population of Ramsey County, Minnesota's smallest in size but second-largest in population. St. Paul is more racially diverse than Minneapolis and I expect by the end of the decade the city will be majority-minority. And St. Paul is today about as Democratic as Minneapolis was 15 years ago, meaning both cities have become better vote engines for Democrats than when they were, respectively, 3-1 Democratic and 2-1 Democratic a generation ago. North of St. Paul are a bunch of older zero-growth suburbs that are pretty reliably Democratic, with only a few Republican jurisdictions in the county's northernmost reaches. The good news is that Ramsey County is becoming more Democratic, and for the first time in three decades worth of election returns, Ramsey County beat St. Louis County as Obama's strongest Minnesota county in 2008. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if the same was true in 2012. The bad news is that Ramsey County is shrinking rather than growing in population, limiting the reach of its improving Democratic margins.
St. Louis County (Duluth, Hibbing, Ely) MN-08
2008 Two-Party Vote: 66.6% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 73.3% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 68.4% Dayton
Minnesota's longest-standing Democratic stronghold is St. Louis County, whose economy centers around the mining of iron ore in the Iron Range and the shipping of iron ore through Lake Superior in the port city of Duluth, together creating one of the most unionized jurisdictions in the nation and voting tendencies that reflect that. The university scene in Duluth also colors the county's political culture an indigo shade of blue. The population in St. Louis County continues to trickle out decade to decade, although the worst of the exodus that came with the reduction of mining jobs now seems to be past. Nonetheless, the most lopsidedly Democratic jurisdictions in the county are the cities and townships on the Mesabi and Vermillion Iron Ranges, and their population continues to age and shrink. Recent election cycles have showed a mild slippage in Democratic margins in the core precincts of the Iron Range, which seems to be happening in demographically similar white working class areas across the country. However, the more mainstream liberal environment of Duluth seems to be compensating for most of the losses on the Iron Range proper and becoming more Democratic. I suspect that if McCain hadn't dominated the airwaves in Minnesota in 2008, Obama would have done even better here, and am curious to see how the real-life Gordon Gekko of Mitt Romney is gonna be received here compared to McCain.
Swift County (Benson, Appleton) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 57.1% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 63.3% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 56% Dayton
If one was asked to single out the epicenter of the populist Farmer-Labor Party during its extremely far-left pre-World War II heyday, rural Swift County in west-central Minnesota would be the unanimous answer from anybody who knows the state's history. The county's population center (and I use the term loosely) of Benson shares the same name as the Farmer-Labor Party's most larger-than-life former Governor, Elmer Benson. Technically, Mr. Benson was from the county's second-largest town of Appleton, a hardscrabble farm town who just took yet another economic body blow two years ago when the prison in town closed, threatening to further shrink a county that has already fallen to below 10,000 residents. There have been a few isolated elections where the Democratic nominee has underperformed in Swift County (Al Gore's six-point win in 2000 comes to mind) but double-digit Democratic victories are the standard here, and a Republican victory is almost unthinkable with the exception of Arne Carlson who won re-election over Democrat John Marty as Minnesota's Governor 66-34 in 1994 but only won Swift County 50.1-49.9. The Farmer-Labor tradition holds firm in both town and country in Swift County as several isolated farm townships routinely run up 70-80% margins of victory for Democratic candidates. Had Obama contested Minnesota and not let McCain dominate the airwaves, I suspect he would have done even better in Swift County, and my suspicion is that will be the case in 2012 against Romney.
Likely Obama Counties
Beltrami County (Bemidji, Red Lake, Blackduck) MN-07, MN-08
2008 Two-Party Vote: 55.2% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 59.9% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 53.5% Dayton
Beltrami County in northwestern Minnesota is a county with three distinct identities. Two of those identities are strongly Democratic and the other leans Republican. On the county's south side is the population center of Bemidji, a state college town of 13,000 with a decisive Democratic bent, although not to the extent of a university town. At Beltrami County's northern reaches is the Red Lake Indian Reservation, with a population of about 5,000 and one of only two closed Indian reservations in the nation (and a corresponding reputation for being very unwelcoming towards outsiders). The four main precincts on the reservation routinely come in better than 90% for Democrats. And in between Bemidji and Red Lake is a large swath of prototypical cabin-dwelling, NRA-card wielding northern Minnesotans whose politics more closely resemble the counties south of Beltrami. There was a juncture in the late 90s and early 2000s where Democrats were either barely winning or outright losing Beltrami County despite their structural advantages, although Ralph Nader probably played a large role in Gore's loss to Bush in 2000, both in Bemidji and on the Red Lake Reservation since northern Minnesota's own Indian activist Winona LaDuke was Nader's running mate. Democrats have been incrementally fighting their way back to decisive victories in Beltrami County in the past decade, however, with higher and more Democratic turnouts amongst college students and on the reservation. Since there's no guarantee that turnout will materialize this year, I can't declare Beltrami County "safe" Obama turf but I would be shocked if he lost.
Big Stone County (Ortonville, Graceville) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 53.3% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 59.8% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 52.3% Dayton
Tiny Big Stone County extends into the western hump of west-central Minnesota, bordering South Dakota, and is one of the fastest-shrinking counties in Minnesota with a population only slightly above the 5,000 mark as of 2010. It's also the whitest county in Minnesota, with 97.7% of the population non-Hispanic white. A former Farmer-Labor party stronghold, Big Stone County has held strong for the Democrats for generations with 1994 being the only year any Republican has managed to sneak through with a microscopic victory in my lifetime. Unfortunately for Democrats, their margins of victory have been getting smaller in the past decade. As the old Farmer-Labor lefties die off, there just aren't any young Democrats to replace them. Even more complicating is that the county's population center of Ortonville is relatively stable population-wise at around 2,000 people, but leans Republican. The rest of the county is a spattering of small (and rapidly getting smaller) towns and farms, all of which look strikingly good given the economic conditions of the area, that vote lopsidedly Democratic but whose numbers are shrinking to the point where it's tougher to overcome Ortonville's Republican tilt. One of these next elections, there aren't gonna be enough Democrats in the rural areas to counterbalance Ortonville, and a Republican will shock the world and win Big Stone County. I'd be surprised if that Republican was Mitt Romney in 2012, however.
Blue Earth County (Mankato, Lake Crystal) MN-01
2008 Two-Party Vote: 56.7% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 61.4% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 51.3% Dayton
The college city of Mankato is the anchor of Blue Earth County in south-central Minnesota and has pushed this swing county's politics leftwards in the past decade or so. A hub of agriculture and engineering, Mankato State University has never been the hotbed of liberalism that so many universities have been over the years, but it has begun to catch up in recent cycles with Blue Earth County having become dependably Democratic in every election since John Kerry won it in 2004. Outside of Mankato, Blue Earth County is a spattering of small towns, most of which are tossup/tilt Democratic, and some of the most fertile and productive farmland in America, settled by heavily German farmers who lean significantly Republican. Obama's only real threat in Blue Earth County in 2012 is low turnout by college students, a plausible scenario given the less-compelling-than-average messages of the two nominees, but highly unlikely to be anemic enough to give Romney the win in the county.
Chippewa County (Montevideo, Clara City) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 53% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 62.7% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 53.1% Dayton
Another county in west-central Minnesota with long-standing ties to the Farmer-Labor left-populist tradition, but unlike some of its neighbors, Chippewa County has not been a reliable bastion for Democrats going back generations. It was actually to the right of the Minnesota average back in the 1980s and only started shifting dependably towards Democrats in the 1990s. Gore lost here by 25 votes in 2000, but no Republican has won a state or federal race since. Obama underperformed in 2008, curiously, as he did in many of the rural areas within the Minneapolis-St. Paul media market where McCain dominated the ad wars, but the arithmetic for a Republican victory in the county has gotten much tougher since 2000, particularly without an assist from Nader. The population center is the Democratic-leaning river valley town of Montevideo which has 5,000 people, and a portion of the even more Democratic river town of Granite Falls is also in the county. The western townships are mostly Democratic strongholds, but there's a cluster of territory on Chippewa County's east side inhabited by conservative Dutch settlers that account for Republicans' only foothold. If not for these staunchly Republican pockets, the county would be "safe" for Obama or any Democrat under just about any circumstance.
Freeborn County (Albert Lea) MN-01
2008 Two-Party Vote: 58.8% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 64.5% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 55.1% Dayton
The former meatpacking mecca of Albert Lea, which anchors the population of Freeborn County in south-central Minnesota, is a shell of its old self economically, but the pro-union culture of generations past still holds firm and colors Freeborn County's politics blue. Albert Lea and Austin (in neighboring Mower County) are credibly seen as twin cities of sorts given their history as unionized meatpacking industry hubs, but especially now the similarities end there. Austin is mostly Irish and Catholic while Albert Lea is mostly Norwegian and Lutheran. Austin's meatpacking industry continues today while the majority of Albert Lea's disappeared when their major plant burned down in 2001. Austin is a generally clean and well-kept town while Albert Lea is run-down. And while Albert Lea and its neighboring communities vote Democratic, they have never done so as strongly as Austin and Mower County have. Freeborn County has delivered for Democrats in federal elections for decades despite its declining union presence, but in local races Republicans have remained highly competitive in Freeborn County, which in the interest of full disclosure is the county I grew up in. I was close to putting Freeborn County in "safe Obama" territory, but voters' willingness to consider downballot Republicans here convinced me to settle for "likely Obama".
Kittson County (Hallock, Karlstad) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 59.5% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 67.5% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 59.5% Dayton
Nestled in the far northwestern corner of Minnesota bordering North Dakota and Manitoba is the rural enclave of Kittson County, an extremely thinly populated farm county with fewer than 5,000 residents (and shrinking fast). It's the kind of place where ethnic diversity means half the town is Norwegian and the other half is Swedish. In terms of voting patterns outside of Presidential elections, Kittson County is fiercely Democratic, one of the most reliable in the state (it was one of only nine counties to go for Democrat Ann Wynia over Rod Grams in the 1994 Senate race). But it's more unpredictable in Presidential elections, particularly when George W. Bush is the Republican nominee. Bush crushed Gore by 10 points here in 2000. John Kerry eked out a victory four years later by a couple dozen votes, but in a county that typically goes Democratic by more than 15 points, Bush's strength there was striking. Four years later, Obama overperformed. So why the inconsistency? It would seem as though a lot has to do with the advertising gap in the North Dakota media markets that serve northwestern Minnesota. Bush was on the airwaves in Grand Forks in 2000 and Gore wasn't.....and Bush won big. Eight years later, Obama was on the airwaves in Grand Forks and McCain wasn't....and Obama won big. So while every indication is that Obama is poised to win again in Kittson County, the ad buys that reach this isolated corner of Minnesota is the wild card that looms very large.
Koochiching County (International Falls, Littlefork) MN-08
2008 Two-Party Vote: 55.2% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 66.7% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 63.5% Dayton
The Rainy River forms the border between Ontario, Canada, and Koochiching County, Minnesota, which consists of a huge land mass of mostly uninhabited forest land and the unionized paper mill town of International Falls, nominally famous as being "the icebox of America". International Falls is a relatively small town of less than 7,000 people, but is perhaps the most isolated town in America with that high of a population. The county has long been a stronghold for culturally conservative but economically liberal Democrats, but for a brief period primarily in the 1998 and 2000 election cycles, took a sudden and sharp turn towards the Republicans. The county went from a 25-point Bill Clinton win in 1996 to a 9-point Bush win in 2000. I don't really know what happened that pushed Koochiching County towards Republicans (and not just Bush...Norm Coleman won here in the 1998 gubernatorial race as well) back then but I suspect it had something to do with logging rights. Whatever the case, the county has been incrementally returning to Democratic form in election cycles since. Democrats at the state level seem to perform much more strongly than Democrats running for federal office but the trendline appears to be moving comfortably back towards Democrats in federal races as well. The county's politics have nonetheless been too unpredictable to declare it "safe" for Obama though.
Lac qui Parle County (Madison, Dawson) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 53% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 61.4% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 53.8% Dayton
Another Farmer-Labor stronghold in west-central Minnesota, bordering South Dakota, Lac qui Parle encapsulates the entire region's struggles about as well any place having lost more than half of its population since it peaked in the 1930s with only about 7,300 residents left. It's about as rural of a county as they come with its two largest towns having fewer than 2,000 residents each. The mostly Norwegian settlers were a comfortable fit for the farm populist movement and the leftist politics of that era still reign supreme today, albeit with shrinking numbers as the population continues to drop and the most dedicated lefties being the county's senior population dying off the most quickly. The majority of the precincts in the county are solidly Democratic, but there's a pocket of Republican strength in the northern townships that dilute Democratic numbers. As was the case all over west-central Minnesota, Obama underperformed in Lac qui Parle County in 2008, but it seemed like an aberration related to disproportionate campaign ad buys. And having followed Lac qui Parle County's politics going back to the 1980s, Democrats may not always win big here but they always seem to win, and I don't see that changing in 2012.
Mahnomen County (Mahnomen) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 63% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 66.6% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 61.5% Dayton
Seems like Democrats do best in Minnesota's most heavily populated and its least heavily populated counties. Count Mahnomen County in northwestern Minnesota among the state's least populated Democratic counties. The entire county is within the boundaries of the White Earth Indian Reservation, one of the Big Three reservations in Minnesota, although the population within the reservation is about two-thirds white. It's a mix of farms and woodland, but the chief crop is an unusual one for Minnesota....wild rice...which is grown and processed at a plant in Mahnomen. The 2000 election, which George Bush won by nearly 10 points, had two major complications that altered the outcome. The first was Bush's monopolization of the airwaves in the Fargo-Moorhead media market that serves Mahnomen, and the other being that Ralph Nader's running mate Winona LaDuke was from this county. Even beyond that, however, the Democrats were no sure thing in Mahnomen County in the not-so-recent past, with disproportionately low voter turnout during the years when Republicans were scoring a few victories (Boschwitz defeated Wellstone here in both 1990 and 1996 for instance). But beginning with John Kerry's decisive victory here in 2004, the county has swung massively to the left, to the point of going for Al Franken by 14 points in 2008. I believe much of this is the product of higher turnout among the Native American population, but I also think there are issues related to the wild rice crop that have somehow shifted to a partisan issue for which Democrats have been on the winning side. The unpredictability of the Fargo-Moorhead ad wars leave just enough uncertainty here for me to stop short of declaring Mahnomen County as "safe" for Obama, but it would be shocking if it turned red again considering it's recent trendline.
Norman County (Ada, Twin Valley) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 63.9% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 66.1% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 62.5% Dayton
Just to the west of Mahnomen County in the heart of the Red River Valley with North Dakota to its west is Norman County. The two counties share robust wild rice production and Democratic politics that have trended even more Democratic in recent cycles, but there also have plenty of differences. There is virtually no American Indian presence in Norman County and sugar is as at least as big (if not bigger) than wild rice in the county. The sugar issue has been good for Democrats in northwestern Minnesota in recent cycles because the product enjoys cartel-style protections that were jeopardized with recent Republican-endorsed trade agreements with Central and South America, but with the ongoing strike at the Crystal Sugar plant in Moorhead driving a wedge between sugar growers and processing workers, there's no guarantee the issue will continue to exclusively benefit Democrats. With that said, Norman County has long been the strongest Democratic county in northwestern Minnesota. It wasn't at the geographic center of the Farmer-Labor Party movement but certainly was and remains a bastion of left-leaning farmers and small-town residents. The population is largely inconsequential in statewide races, with around 6,000 residents, but the county can usually be counted upon to deliver lopsided Democratic margins that keep otherwise competitive legislative races in Democratic hands. Just as he did everywhere in northwestern Minnesota, Bush beat Gore in Norman County in 2000 due to Fargo-Moorhead media market dominance (and perhaps other issues I'm not considering), but that was an aberration as Kerry bounced back to win four years later and Democratic margins have been increasingly strong since. Obama overperformed in 2008 due to the same ad war issues that helped Bush win here in 2000, but I still expect Obama's a cinch to repeat here, if not necessarily by 27 points. A possible divide because of the sugar plant strike makes me a bit queasy though.
Rice County (Faribault, Northfield) MN-01, MN-02
2008 Two-Party Vote: 55.9% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 63.8% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 51.6% Dayton
A short distance south of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area is Rice County, formerly a staunchly Democratic rural county that has been diluted some due to exurban sprawl. But even with the influx of Republican-voting newcomers, Rice County's two population centers continue to give it a decidedly Democratic tilt that seems to hold up even in most unfavorable political environments. The small working-class city of Faribault is the biggest town in the county and leans Democratic, although the margins it delivers to Democrats are relatively modest compared to the liberal college town of Northfield, which usually goes close to 3-1 for Democrats. Fifteen years ago, the rest of the county leaned slightly towards Democrats, but that is no longer the case as nearly every other precinct in Rice County outside of Faribault and Northfield goes Republican these days, particularly in northern Rice County. I suppose there will be additional dilution based on continued sprawl, but at the same time Northfield continues to grow and breed more Democrats so it's kind of a wash. Here's another county that I was close to putting into the "safe Obama" designation since I can't recall a state or federal race where Rice County has ever voted Republican, but stopped short because the extent of the sprawl-related growth in the Lonsdale area remains just enough of a wild card to make me mildly nervous.
Winona County (Winona, St. Charles) MN-01
2008 Two-Party Vote: 59.8% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 59.9% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 51% Dayton
As recently as the mid-1990s, Winona County was pretty evenly divided politically, and may have even tilted slightly Republican. The politics of Minnesota's southeastern corner changed to the Democrats' favor in the years since for a variety of reasons, and Winona County benefited from this change disproportionately since it is anchored by a college town that already leaned Democrat. As the youth vote trended stronger and stronger for Democrats, the margins in the city of Winona by themselves made the arithmetic impossible for Republicans, but even the conservative areas of the county have moved in the Democrats' direction. Much of this has to do with the moderate nature of southeastern Minnesota's Republicans, for whom the current GOP seems to have moved too far to the right, particularly on war issues as the area seems to have a dovish streak. Beyond that, organic farming has caught on in the bluffs of the Upper Mississippi River Valley, in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, and the competition with corporate agriculture elsewhere (and perhaps the prevailing political ideology of their clientele) appears to have pushed these voters leftward as well. Obama's monopoly of the La Crosse, WI, ad wars resulted in a blowout victory in 2008 that is not likely to be repeated. Obama seems very likely to win, but not by nearly 20 points like last time. The 2010 midterms reminded me that Winona County still has one foot in its Republican tradition, however, as the GOP captured the state Senate seat and Democrats barely eked out wins in three of the four statewide races, while Republicans won the fourth. The 2012 electorate should be more Democrat-friendly but not quite enough for me to declare the county "safe Obama".
Lean Obama Counties
Clay County (Moorhead, Barnesville) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 58.2% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 58.9% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 51.5% Dayton
The population center of the Red River Valley on the Minnesota side is Clay County, home of the city of Moorhead, twin city to Fargo, North Dakota. Moorhead has always been more downscale that Fargo, and has a higher proportional population of college students, which has meant it has voted Democratic more frequently than Fargo in the past, but it's never been a stronghold. For most of the last 20 years, Moorhead has been fairly evenly divided politically, tilting ever so narrowly towards Democrats. The same can be said for the portions of Clay County outside of Moorhead, which are made up of sugar beet and wheat farms and several small farm towns that have generally leaned Democratic but not reliably so, yet seem to be moving in a more consistent Democratic pattern. I've mentioned in other northwestern Minnesota counties that campaign advertising plays a huge role in election outcomes, with some Minnesota candidates choosing to go on the air in a media market that primarily serves North Dakota and others not. I don't know for sure but I'm guessing that played a role in Tim Pawlenty handily defeating Mike Hatch in the 2006 Governor's race, even though Democrats were by that point starting to attain an advantage among Clay County voters. George Bush managed to win here twice in 2000 and 2004, but the county swung hard for Obama in 2008, again because of his ad war advantage. Obama will probably win again but I'd be very surprised if he vanquished Romney by the 16 points he did against McCain. The county's inconsistent political history along with the unpredictability of the ad wars and the wild card of the divisive sugar plant strike in Moorhead all stand in possible conflict with its recent shift towards Democrats and "lean Obama" is the best I can do when rating this one.
Fillmore County (Spring Valley, Rushford) MN-01
2008 Two-Party Vote: 54.3% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 60.1% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 50.8% Emmer
I've mentioned in a couple other county profiles that Minnesota's southeastern corner has trended from being a Republican stronghold to a lean-Democrat region in the last decade or so. One of the first to swing was Fillmore County, a strikingly rural and all-white (97.6%...one of the state's whitest) enclave with split ethnic and political personalities. Only 17 Minnesota counties voted for Al Gore in 2000, and if I was given 17 guesses as to which ones they were before seeing the results, Fillmore County would definitely not have been one of my guesses given its decisive Republican lean in the not-so-distant past, yet it was a Gore county. It held on for Kerry and Obama as well in subsequent cycles. The Republicans maintain a foothold in the northern and western precincts of Fillmore County, which were settled by the Germans and tend to be politically closer to rural Rochester, but as you go south and east in the county you move towards the bluffs of the Root River Valley and precincts settled by Norwegians, with a higher proportion of organic farmers. This area has always been the Democratic part of Fillmore County, but has gotten decidedly more so in the last decade. At the center of this is Lanesboro, a scenic small town nestled in the Root River Valley bluffs that was successfully transformed into a tourist destination, and has seen its politics transform from a swing town to a Democratic stronghold with the additions of artists and small shop owners that have produced liberal environments in demographically similar small towns and not-so-small towns across America (the closest comparison I can think of is Eureka Springs, Arkansas). Everything seems to be going the Democrats' way in Fillmore County, but I was reminded in 2010 that Fillmore County still has one toe remaining in its Republican traditions as all legislative seats serving the county have reverted back to Republicans and three of the four statewide elections went Republican. Particularly in more generic races such as Secretary of State and Auditor, Fillmore County is not bashful about sticking with the GOP. With that in mind, Obama needs a positive political environment to prevail here.
Grant County (Elbow Lake, Hoffman) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 52.9% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 60.5% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 50.3% Emmer
There's a collision of worlds in tiny, rural Grant County in west-central Minnesota. The county features the northernmost reaches of the Farmer-Labor strongholds that continue to vote for Democrats, but also has the southern and most conservative section of the Red River Valley and the beginning of the lake-and-cabin culture prominent in its right-wing neighbors to the north and east (Otter Tail and Douglas Counties). Grant is unmistakably a farm county with no towns larger than 1,200 residents, and of the three groups represented, the Democratic-leaning Farmer-Labor region has the most precincts, but it makes for competitive elections. There have been a number of incredibly close elections in Minnesota in the last decade, and Democrats have won most of them, but in those close races, it seems like the Republicans usually eke out a small victory in Grant County. Bush won comfortably in 2000 as he did most everywhere in western Minnesota, but barely hung on in 2004, much like Norm Coleman did in 2008 against Franken, and Tom Emmer did in 2010 against Dayton, all winning by less than one percentage point. But with polls indicating Obama will win Minnesota comfortably and that it is not likely to be strongly contested, the center of gravity statewide tilts in Obama's favor and it's hard to imagine a decisive statewide win for Obama where he doesn't win Grant County.
Nicollet County (North Mankato, St. Peter) MN-01
2008 Two-Party Vote: 55.4% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 61.5% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 51.5% Dayton
Another Southern Minnesota county that has traditionally been about as evenly divided as Minnesota counties come, but has been trending Democratic over the last decade. Nicollet County has three different personalities. The Democrats run up their margins in the liberal college town of St. Peter, the county seat which has about 11,000 residents. Republicans dominate in almost all of the rural precincts in Nicollet County, which is predominantly German-settled like its neighboring counties. What used to be the swing area, and still is in some respects, is North Mankato. In the past, North Mankato has been disproportionately middle-class families compared to the rest of the city where most of the college students lived, but as the campus culture expands, more left-leaning voters connected to it have moved into North Mankato over the last decade and the city has gone from leaning narrowly Republican in 2000 to leaning Democrat today. As a result, Nicollet County has shifted to a more dependable Democratic county in recent cycles, where Democrats swept all races on the ballot even in the defensive year of 2010. Still, turnout among younger voters is imperative as there isn't a great deal of margin for error here.
Pope County (Glenwood, Starbuck) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 51.9% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 59.6% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 51% Emmer
I recently profiled Grant County, whose political and demographic profile is very similar to Pope County which is just to its south and east in west-central Minnesota but with a slightly larger population (10,000 compared to 6,000). Large Lake Minnewaska, right in the middle of the county, is Pope County's most renowned physical feature. Democrats have a solid core in Pope County, made up of its two largest towns of Glenwood and Starbuck, both heavily and proudly Norwegian, and the county's southern townships bordering Swift County, which are holdover Democratic strongholds from the Farmer-Labor days. The north side of the county leans Republican, however, where the culture transforms towards the lake-and-cabin culture of nearby rural Alexandria. This profile leads to Democratic victories in Democratic-leaning races, but all too often, narrow Republican victories in close races. George W. Bush made an artform of squeaking out victories in Pope County by the barest of margins, winning by 37 votes in 2000 and 2 votes (!!) in 2004. Tim Pawlenty, Norm Coleman, and Tom Emmer have pulled off the same feat with microscopic victories in subsequent cycles. Like with Grant County, however, if Obama is winning Minnesota as decisively as suspected, I suspect he wins Pope County. Interestingly, Pope County is another of the state's three whitest county with 97.5% of the county being caucasian. This means that Minnesota's three whitest counties (Big Stone, Fillmore, and Pope) are all rated as either leaning or likely Obama, counter to the national trend.
Traverse County (Wheaton, Browns Valley) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 52.8% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 57.7% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 54.3% Dayton
Really hitting the small farm counties of west-central Minnesota hard in this category, and they don't come any more rural or west than Traverse County, which caresses both the North Dakota and South Dakota borders in Minnesota's sparse western hump. But despite being Minnesota's least-populated county with approximately 3,500 residents, the state's politics can be complex as different portions of the county are served by three separate media markets...Minneapolis-St. Paul, Fargo-Moorhead, and even Watertown, SD! Bordering South Dakota's Sisseton Indian Reservation, there's a sizable Native American population in the county, particularly in Democratic Browns Valley at the tip of the western hump. Wheaton, the largest town in the county, is also pretty reliably Democratic, but beyond that, there's little in the way of reliable Democratic turf. Just north of Wheaton is the southern Red River Valley (specifically the Bois de Sioux valley) which has always been very Republican. Even the southern townships of Traverse County are more unpredictable than anything else, never showing any consistent connection with the Farmer-Labor strongholds immediately to the south. But Traverse County's Republican precincts are empty, even by Traverse County standards, meaning the Democrats have a decided advantage here. Bush won twice, very narrowly the second time, but he was the exception. Democrats up and down the ballot did very well in Traverse County even in 2010, the most miserable year for Democrats in my lifetime. With that in mind, one can't discount the unpredictability of this county's politics, but Obama clearly seems more likely to win than Romney.
Yellow Medicine County (Granite Falls, Canby) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 52.2% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 59.9% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 52.6% Emmer
Yet another west-central Minnesota farm county, this one at the southern end of the Farmer-Labor left-populist region. The largest town in Yellow Medicine County is Granite Falls, a town of 3,000, which is the most Democratic of towns that pass as population centers in west-central Minnesota (although a quarter of the town is across the Minnesota River in Chippewa County). Working-class with a sizable Native American population from the nearby Upper Sioux Indian Reservation, Granite Falls provides Democrats a comfortable head start in Yellow Medicine County, and one that is needed to offset Republican precincts elsewhere in the county. The Farmer-Labor strongholds tend to be spottier in this county and are often surrounded by Republican-leaning areas. The western portion of Yellow Medicine bordering South Dakota, including the county's second-largest town of Canby, leans Republican, as do the German-settled precincts in the county's southeast corner. So Democrats have a general advantage but if Republicans can consolidate their strongholds they can eke out wins as Bush did in when he won by one percentage point in 2000 and 2004, and when Tim Pawlenty famously defeated Mike Hatch here by one vote in 2006. But like the other counties in this category, unless it's a close race statewide, it's likely Obama will win Yellow Medicine County.
Tossup/Tilt Obama Counties
Aitkin County (Aitkin, Hill City) MN-08
2008 Two-Party Vote: 50.03% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 60.7% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 51.2% Dayton
It's a mistake to think that exurbia alone has diluted Democrats' performance in northeastern Minnesota's 8th district. Particularly in the areas outside the reaches of exurbia in east-central Minnesota, there's been some shift to Republicans. The vast, rural north woods hideaway of Aitkin County, bridging the Republican-leaning Brainerd lakes area with the Democratic Northland, is a classic example, having gone decisively for Democrats up and down the ballot in the 80s and 90s, but starting to become more competitive at the dawn of the new millennium. Gore won Aitkin County by only one point, but since Gore did poorly almost everywhere in outstate Minnesota, it was easy to write that off as a fluke....until Bush beat Kerry there in 2004. Obama prevailed by all of six votes in Aitkin County in 2008, an eyebrow-raisingly weak performance particularly considering the much weaker Al Franken won the county in the Senate race. Yet even in the ugly year of 2010, all four statewide races went to the Democrats, so the county still has a marginal Democratic tilt. With that information in mind, I'm giving Obama the slimmest of odds of a repeat victory here. McCain dominated the ad wars in both the Minneapolis-St. Paul and Duluth media markets and it clearly suppressed Obama's numbers, so assuming all things are equal on the airwaves this year and Obama is winning decisively statewide, it's entirely possible that Aitkin County could go for him by as much as seven votes over Romney this year!
Dakota County (Eagan, Burnsville, Lakeville, South St. Paul) MN-02
2008 Two-Party Vote: 52.8% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 58.1% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 54.7% Emmer
The past generation has brought significant changes to the political environment of the suburban counties in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area as well as outstate Minnesota. In the 1980s and 90s, the three primary suburban counties all tilted Democrat, particularly in federal elections, but Dakota County tilted the least of three. Fast forward to 2012 and Dakota County is the Democrats' friendliest (or least unfriendly) of the three counties, and also the most heavily populated of the three (and the third most heavily populated county in the state). Sprawl to the county's rural southern reaches shifted the politics rightward around 2000 and kept it that way for a few election cycles, but indications are that the shift is past peak. The exurban sprawl zone, particularly the Lakeville and Farmington area, is still growing and is extremely Republican, while the established and more blue-collar northern suburbs of Dakota County, particularly West St. Paul and South St. Paul, are solid for Democrats. But its the second ring of suburbs between them that determines the outcome of elections, and it seems to be shifting towards Democrats. Eagan and Inver Grove Heights have typically been the most favorable terrain for Democrats, having gone for both Gore and Kerry, but more recently Democrats have made inroads in Apple Valley and especially Burnsville, the second largest city in Dakota County, which has seen some significant racial diversification over the last decade and has gone from about 10% nonwhite to 30% nonwhite since 2000 (and 30% nonwhite is pretty diverse for Minnesota standards). A decade ago, Republicans were capable of winning Dakota County by 15 points or more, but it seems as though their ceiling now is more like 9 points, and that same baseline has shifted at the other end of the spectrum, with a higher ceiling for Democrats. Obama won Dakota County by five points in 2008, and that was with the headwinds of McCain monopolizing the ad wars in Minnesota meaning there's potential for an even stronger performance in 2012. However, if Romney is able to successfully sell himself as a moderately conservative Republican, he could capture a lot of the voters who went twice for Pawlenty and Coleman. Flip of the coin at this point, but if Obama wins the state by a margin similar to 2008, he'll win Dakota County. Burnsville and Apple Valley will be the bellwethers.
Houston County (La Crescent, Caledonia) MN-01
2008 Two-Party Vote: 55.6% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 55.5% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 54.2% Emmer
In the southeastern corner of Minnesota, with Wisconsin to its east and Iowa to its south, Houston County, mostly settled by Germans, has long been a reliable Republican bastion. Every fall as a boy, I rode through the scenic Root River Valley en route to La Crosse, Wisconsin, and remember the saturation of Republican yard signs in front of almost every farm place back in the 1990s. But as the tide turned towards Republicans at the dawn on the millennium in other parts of Minnesota, it turned towards Democrats in southeastern Minnesota, although it arrived slower in Houston County, which had always been quite the stronghold and had quite a ways to fall to become competitive. Nonetheless, Bush posted some pretty wimpy margins in both 2000 and 2004, and as organic farming took off and the Iraq war got bloodier, the changing of the guard accelerated and became downright palpable. I'll never forget driving through in October 2006 and seeing a solid block of Democratic yard signs in front of the same farm places that for years had all Republican signs. It was pretty clear the county would be a turnover to Obama in 2012, but Obama's saturation of the La Crosse media market, which serves Houston County, turned it into an 11-point blowout. But I had a feeling that unlike neighboring Fillmore and Winona Counties, this one wasn't gonna be long-term. And sure enough, in 2010, Republicans once again dominated in every race on the ballot. To be fair, the La Crosse media market usually doesn't touch upon Minnesota's statewide races, so Houston County is pretty isolated from its own state's politics, but even so, the Democratic surge of 2006 and 2008 appears over. Since I don't expect Romney will concede the La Crosse media market to Obama in September the way McCain did four years ago, I expect the race to be much closer this year. Given the size of Obama's victory last time, however, I'm still leaning narrowly in his favor despite the county's historical strength for Republicans.
Olmsted County (Rochester, Stewartville) MN-01
2008 Two-Party Vote: 51.7% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 55.6% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 54.8% Emmer
For decades, Olmsted County was considered "the heart and soul of the Republican Party in Minnesota". The southeastern Minnesota county was the home of Rochester, once a small white-collar city anchored by Mayo Clinic and IBM. Affluent, educated, and rich with conservative German heritage, lopsided margins in Rochester were key to any victory for Republicans in Minnesota. As recently as 1996, Olmsted was one of only 11 Minnesota counties to vote for Bob Dole for President. But starting in 2000, things began to recede. Bush's victory over Gore was in the single digits and Senator Rod Grams won by only two points. Rochester was growing at lightning pace and its population was diversifying (again, diversifying by Minnesota standards...we're still talking 80% white). Suddenly, the educated nature of its citizenry was no longer such a plus for Republicans. In 2004, Bush's second time on the ballot yielded an even smaller margin, and Democrats won a cluster of legislative seats in the district, which up to that point was unthinkable in such a Republican stronghold. As the foolishness of the war in Iraq and the anti-intellectualism of the Bush administration pressed forward, the city moved decisively towards Democrats in 2006 and 2008, and Obama sneaked in with a three-point victory in Olmsted County. Will it happen again? There are competing factors at play. The city continues to grow (it's now approximately double its size in 1980) and diversify, and the Republican tradition here has always been of the soft-spoken, dealmaking, moderate variety, not the crazed Tea Party variety, so Obama could easily be seen as the adult in the room to a lot of the same moderate Republicans who voted for him in 2008. On the other hand, I have a feeling a city as immersed in the medical establishment as Rochester has more than its share of harsh critics of the PPACA, and while I'm skeptical of too many votes being swung on this issue most places, I suspect it will cost Obama votes here. Furthermore, Romney is temperamentally suited to the Olmsted County Republican tradition in a way that George W. Bush wasn't. I could go either way on this one, but the trendline has been crisp enough that I'll tilt towards Obama.
Pine County (Pine City, Hinckley) MN-08
2008 Two-Party Vote: 50.8% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 60.1% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 51.1% Emmer
It would have been impossible to imagine at any point in the 1990s that Olmsted County (Rochester) would have gone stronger for a Democratic Presidential candidate than Pine County, a rural bastion in east-central Minnesota about halfway between the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area and Duluth, but that's exactly what happened in 2008. And the transformation happened very quickly in the late 1990s, with Pine County going from a typical 20-point Democratic advantage to a swing county in just a couple short years. Two things were going on at once. First, perhaps as a pushback on Clinton's aggressiveness on gun control, the downscale white working class residents of northeastern Minnesota started shifting political loyalties. And second, the southern portion of Pine County became exurbia, with a conservative demographic of commuter of the Chip Cravaack ilk establishing residence in the rural areas. Gore narrowly won in 2000, but Kerry and Obama won by even less. In fact, no other county in the nation that went Democratic in the last three Presidential elections has done so with as consistently anemic margins as Pine County, Minnesota. The county is now polarized between its more conservative exurban voters on the south side, and the northern precincts of the county still culturally closer to Duluth and still Democratic strongholds. Has the tipping point been reached yet? That's the question of the day, but I'm leaning narrowly towards Obama simply because the ad wars were tilted so heavily to McCain in 2008, yet Obama still won. I have very little confidence in this one, especially as it now seems to be tougher sledding for Democrats even at the state level.
Polk County (East Grand Forks, Crookston) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 52.3% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 58.4% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 50.2% Dayton
Large in size and noteworthy in population in sparse northwestern Minnesota, Polk County is primarily a Red River Valley farm county but has additional demographic variables that frequently make for competitive elections. Democrats lack a consistent vote engine in the county, but the closest thing they have is the college town of Crookston, the second largest town in Polk County, which almost always goes for Democrats by healthy margins, yet surprisingly went for Bush in 2004 even with concern about the sugar issue looming large leading up to the CAFTA vote (Crookston has a sugar beet plant). There are a cluster of small towns which also lean Democrat, as do a patchwork of the townships, but for every Democratic small town and township in Polk County, there seems to be another small town and township that leans Republican, particularly in the less agricultural southeastern part of the county. The tiebreaker is often East Grand Forks, just across the river from North Dakota and the largest town in Polk County. The bad news for Democrats is that after a long stretch of stagnant to declining growth in East Grand Forks following the flood of 1997, the city appears to be growing again....and the newcomers seem to be disproportionately Republican. In statewide elections, Democrats tend to have the smallest of advantages in Polk County, with both Mike Hatch and Mark Dayton, as two easy examples, each winning Polk County by less than one percentage point in the last two gubernatorial elections. Regarding recent Presidential elections, Polk County behaved like most in northwestern Minnesota giving Bush numbers that were well above the Republican baseline and giving Obama numbers better than the Democratic baseline. For whatever reason though (perhaps a less lopsided advertising advantage), counties in the Grand Forks media market saw less of a dramatic shift towards Obama than did counties in the Fargo-Moorhead media market, and Polk County is mostly served by the former. The best rationale I can give for why I believe this unpredictable county tilts Obama in 2012 is that voters often seem to double down on their original choice, meaning that Obama's victory four years ago may (but not necessarily) give him some breathing room.
Red Lake County (Red Lake Falls, Oklee) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 53.3% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 64% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 53.8% Dayton
Right next door to Polk County is the tiny farm county of Red Lake, which has no association at all with the nearby Red Lake Indian Reservation and is almost exclusively white. However, Red Lake County does have a large ethnic bloc that is uncommon to Minnesota....French Catholics. The association is far from perfect, but the French Catholics of northwestern Minnesota have been ancestrally Democratic in the same way that the Cajuns of Louisiana have, despite being culturally conservative. The two factions of French Catholics certainly took diverging paths in the 2008 Presidential election, however. Red Lake County, one of Minnesota's least populated with around 4,000 residents, has maintained a strongly Democratic lean in state and local elections, but has been less consistent in federal elections, particularly in the last decade. In fact, no other Minnesota county swung as hard from Bill Clinton in 1996 to George Bush in 2000, going from a 20-point Clinton win to a 13-point Bush win. Bush won again in the high single digits in 2004, but Obama rode the Democratic tide of the region to win in 2008. But Obama's numbers in the northern Red River Valley weren't as impressive as they were in the southern Red River Valley, so he has less margin for error to remain victorious in Red Lake County, and given the inconsistency in their voting patterns for federal races in recent cycles, it's anybody's guess where it will go this year.
Stevens County (Morris, Hancock) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 50.6% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 57.2% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 50.1% Emmer
Stevens County in west-central Minnesota is the state's most politically polarized county. The county's population center is the heavily Democratic college town of Morris, which at slightly over 5,000 residents is a metropolis in this region. The rest of the county has about the same population as Morris but is just as Republican as Morris is Democrat. The four small towns in the county are all in the lean-Republican category, but the mother lode of Republican votes come from the county's eastern townships, settled by archconservative evangelical Hutterites. Unless your name is Collin Peterson, a Democrat can expect anywhere from 4-20% of the vote in these precincts. In the past, this division has seemed to narrowly favor Republicans, particularly since a spoiler like Ralph Nader (or any of Minnesota's Independence Party gadflies who seem to get votes disproportionately from Democrat-leaning voters) looms large. But there is some indication that the tide is tilting in the Democrats' direction as Morris is growing, albeit slowly, while the rest of the county is shrinking. In 2000, Morris represented 50.4% of Stevens County's population but in 2010 has increased to 54.3%. Particularly when accounting for the trajectory of the youth vote, the trendline in Stevens County is strong and I suspect the tipping point where Democrats will win more elections here than Republicans has been crossed. But the youth vote needs to turn out in droves for Obama to score an encore victory here.
Washington County (Woodbury, Stillwater, Forest Lake) MN-02, MN-04, MN-06
2008 Two-Party Vote: 52.2% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 57.3% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 55% Emmer
Another of the three primary suburban counties of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, Washington County tilted Democrat two decades ago just as neighboring Anoka and Dakota Counties did, but as the new millennium approached a surge of sprawl added tens of thousands of new conservative-leaning voters into the county. Long and skinny, Washington County lies between St. Paul and the Wisconsin border and the woodsy setting provided by the St. Croix River Valley offers a natural sanctuary for commuters looking for a country setting, and of course these voters tend to be pretty conservative in Minnesota and throughout the country. By the 2000 election, when Washington County went narrowly for George Bush and Senator Rod Grams, it was pretty clear that the county's politics had shifted decisively rightward, and it was even more clear by the 2002 midterms. Unlike Anoka and Dakota Counties, Washington County lacks any significant Democratic strongholds that would help to offset Republican growth in the sprawl zone, but many of the county's more established suburbs like Oakdale and Cottage Grove, along with the city of Stillwater, seem to be shifting gradually towards Democrats. The northern third of Washington County (Michelle Bachmann's political base when she was in the state Senate) remains the Democrats' primary trouble spot, however, particularly the fast-growing exurbs of Forest Lake and Hugo. Unlike the north and northwest metro, Washington County does not seem to be a hotbed of evangelicalism, which partly explains Democrats' slow march back to competitiveness here and that the Republican ceiling seems to have fallen to about 10 points in the last couple cycles. Obama won here and if Minnesota goes for him in 2012 by a margin similar to 2008, as many expect, he'll win Washington County again. On the other hand, Romney may be a more comfortable fit for these upscale moderates, so it's a flip of the coin.
Watonwan County (St. James, Madelia) MN-01
2008 Two-Party Vote: 50.4% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 57.1% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 53.3% Emmer
A farm county in southwestern Minnesota (where I worked for three years in the not too distant past), Watonwan County used to be a Republican stronghold that shared both the politics and the German heritage of its neighboring counties. Mostly because of the Irish Catholic town of Madelia, Watonwan County's second largest and heavily Democratic, Watonwan was never as conservative as Brown or Martin counties to its north and south, but the politics have shifted further towards Democrats in the past 25 years as Madelia, along with the largest town in the county St. James, have seen a large influx of Hispanic voters who work in their turkey processing plants. Watonwan County is now more than 20% Hispanic, and as the white population has shrunk, the politics have become pretty evenly divided. Bush won here twice, but the margins were always in single digits and the ceiling for Republicans has fallen considerably in the past decade. Obama's margin was about as paltry as it gets in Watonwan County in 2008, but again this was in the context of a McCain-dominated media environment, which leads me to believe there's potential for growth and a margin for error that doesn't exist in northwestern Minnesota counties where Obama barely eked out wins even with all the advantages of ad war monopolization.