You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

A Prairie Home Caucus

Can Sanders and Rubio pull off Super Tuesday wins in Minnesota?

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

This Tuesday, Minnesotans will pile into their salt-crusted minivans and head to high schools, art centers, and 4H buildings. For the first time in a long time, the state’s caucus will be held at a decisive point in the race, and its delegates appear up for grabs on both the Democratic and Republican sides. In other words, neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump have a lock on the state, for several reasons.

Minnesota is extremely white (81 percent) and extremely polarized. Republicans are socially and fiscally conservative (think Michele Bachmann), while Democrats are especially progressive. An analysis of the Minnesota legislature shows very few elected officials are moderate, and each party’s lawmakers vote more ideologically than the average. “I would describe Minnesota as schizophrenic—you’ve got two moral crusades going on, one in each party,” said Steven Schier, a politics professor at Carleton College in Northfield, a city south of Minneapolis.

Minnesota’s constituents are as split geographically as they are ideologically. The Twin Cities and inner suburbs are Democratic terrain. The outer suburbs, consisting of swaths of prairie, McMansions, and some of the state’s best schools, are home to “libertarian, leave me alone Republicans” who will likely find their candidate in Rubio or the more socially conservative Cruz, according to Schier. Up north, where those metropolitan liberals travel to go canoeing, visit their cabin, or attend a hockey tournament, lies some deep blue bastions—the Iron Range, for instance—but also potential Trump voters: conservative farmers fed up with Washington.

The polls thus far have been lackluster. The latest, from the Minneapolis Star Tribune in January, polled only 800 general election voters. On the Republican side, 23 percent went for Senator Marco Rubio, 21 percent for Senator Ted Cruz, and 18 percent for Trump; among Democrats, Clinton topped Bernie Sanders by 59 percent to 25 percent. In late August, at the Minnesota State Fair, the state’s Republican Party held a corn kernel jar poll. Though the kernels weren’t counted, the end results showed popularity among outsider candidates like Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson, according to Minnesota GOP Chairman Keith Downey.

But Schier says the state’s political dynamics favor the most principled candidates. “It’s a state with a strongly moralistic political tradition. The activists tend to think in grand, abstract categories of right and wrong,” he said. “That’s why people like Cruz and Bernie could do particularly well here, because their tone and substance appeals particularly well to that orientation.”

Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party is one of the most liberal in the country, and its voters are generally progressive. “We’re the land of Paul Wellstone, and Hubert Humphrey, and Walter Mondale. We tend to lean pretty left,” said the state Democratic Party’s chairman, Ken Martin. According to Schier, the same Sanders-aligned values that resonate with voters in New Hampshire and Vermont are likely to resonate in the north. “It’s like Vermont: it’s heavily white, it’s heavily liberal, and heavily well-educated,” he said. “Northern-tier liberalism, it’s pretty emphatic.”

While Sanders has grassroots support, and will likely be popular with the many college students in the state, Clinton has secured important endorsements from the Star Tribune and the voice of Minnesota, Garrison Keillor, as well as superdelegates Governor Mark Dayton, senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, and former Vice President Walter Mondale. Sanders received the endorsement of one of the country’s most progressive lawmakers and also a superdelegate, Representative Keith Ellison.

The “progressive” title looms large in a state where Paul Wellstone preached, “We all do better when we all do better.” Martin, who worked for the late Wellstone, says both Clinton and Sanders fit that bill, but Schier says Sanders’s general standing to the left of Clinton could help him win the Wellstone legacy vote. “These activists, many of whom still greatly revere the memory of Wellstone, are likely to support Bernie Sanders in great numbers,” Schier said. “His left, grassroots activism is still very much evident within the party—particularly within its Twin Cities ranks.” Sanders could also poll well in the industrial Iron Range, the land of Bob Dylan, where the DFL has a stronghold among miners and industry.

Rubio, who hasn’t won a state yet, will be in Minnesota on Super Tuesday, suggesting he’s hoping for a win in Minnesota to add momentum to his bid for the nomination. His campaign has targeted the suburbs, a highly educated and high-income area where former Governor Tim Pawlenty thinks Rubio could be successful. “He is no doubt conservative, but his message is also hopeful and positive in a way that would be well-received in the suburbs,” Pawlenty, who has endorsed Rubio, told The Washington Post. Rubio also has the backing of former Senator Norm Coleman and the Star Tribune.

But Minnesota Republicans are socially and fiscally conservative, meaning they might be wooed by the Tea Party appeal of Ted Cruz; Rick Santorum won the caucus there in 2012, and Cruz has framed Minnesota as a key state. The Minnesota GOP State Central Committee also chose Cruz by a wide margin in a straw poll in December. According to Downey, Cruz has shown a “real solid ground game.” And Trump, as always, should not be discounted, based on his resemblance to a famous Minnesotan wrestler-turned-politician: Jesse Ventura. “They’re both celebrities and entertainers,” said Schier. “They were not known for their policy expertise.”