Throughout the 2020 presidential primary campaign, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota brought forward the importance of rural voters and their concerns perhaps more than any other candidate in the race. This continued through her final debate performance in South Carolina. As these repeated comments made clear, her candidacy was premised on an argument that the Democratic Party needed to nominate a candidate who could appeal to voters in the so-called “heartland,” many of whom had voted for Democrats in the past before helping elect President Trump in 2016.
As Klobuchar ended her campaign on the eve of Super Tuesday, she made the case, if it wasn’t going to be her, that former Vice President Joe Biden was the best candidate to achieve the vision of winning these voters. As part of our analysis of Super Tuesday results, we wanted to take a closer look at the trends in Klobuchar’s home state of Minnesota and reflect on her assertions about rural voters.
Vote totals show there may be some truth to Klobuchar’s claims, at least on her home turf.
Biden Wins Across the Board; Sanders Weakest with Exurban, Rural Voters
Perhaps the most striking thing from Minnesota’s results was that Biden edged out Senator Bernie Sanders in every type of county grouping, including the major metro class dominated by votes from Minneapolis. Even before Klobuchar suspended her campaign, there were expectations, buoyed by polls and a local Sanders rally the night before Super Tuesday, that Sanders might win the state. Meanwhile, Biden had done little to no campaigning on the ground in Minnesota.
Local news reports on the night of Super Tuesday termed it the “Klobuchar effect,” noting the strong boost the senator provided by clearing the way and endorsing Biden’s campaign. To pundits, the statewide victory offered evidence that candidate Klobuchar was not exaggerating when boasting about her rural bonafides and her popularity and electoral strength in all corners of the state, beyond the big cities and typical Democratic strongholds alone.
It’s not overwhelming, but this does continue to bear out as you dig into the county-by-county data. As seen in the chart at the top of the story, Sanders received a third of the vote in the major metropolitan counties (see Minneapolis), and only lagged this performance slightly in the major suburbs, and the small and medium metros (see places like Saint Paul, Saint Cloud, Rochester and Duluth). Meanwhile, in Minnesota’s exurban and rural counties, Sanders never exceeded 25 percent of the vote.
- Major Metro Core: The core counties of metropolitan statistical areas of 1 million residents or more.
- Major Metro Suburbs: Major metro counties outside the urban core.
- Medium Metro Core: The core counties of metropolitan statistical areas of 250,000 to under 1 million residents.
- Medium Metro Suburbs: Medium metro counties outside the urban core.
- Small Metro: Metropolitan statistical areas with under 250,000 residents.
- Nonmetro Adjacent: Nonmetropolitan counties that are adjacent to a metropolitan area.
- Nonmetro Nonadjacent: Nonmetropolitan counties that are not adjacent to a metropolitan area.
For what it’s worth, the only boundaries where Sanders outperformed Biden, and by a decent margin (38 percent to 29 percent), were within the lines of Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District, its most urban district and one held by Representative Ilhan Omar, a prominent Sanders endorser.
Biden’s performance was largely the inverse of Sanders. He was weakest in the major metros, and strongest in the exurbs, in addition to the suburbs of medium metros and the rural counties adjacent to metro ones. Biden’s performance in rural nonadjacent counties might have been stronger, if not for the fact that Klobuchar received nearly 15 percent of the votes in Minnesota’s most rural places. Best we can figure, this could be a result of the state’s early voting option, which may play a larger role in highly remote precincts and places like rural nursing homes. Or, it could be a consequence of more rural voters not hearing the late breaking news about Klobuchar’s campaign, being less likely to have easy internet access or local newspapers that publish on Tuesday mornings.
Deeper down the ballot, these urban-rural dynamics were mirrored with the lower-performing candidates. The more progressive Elizabeth Warren reliably beat out moderate Michael Bloomberg in the major metro and suburban counties and had a slight edge in the medium and small metros too. Conversely, Bloomberg, who recorded a lower share of votes in Minnesota relative to his performance in many other Super Tuesday states, fared best in exurban and rural counties (these were the only places he exceeded 10 percent).
Other measures on the urban-rural spectrum reinforce these trends. One such measure, used by the Minnesota State Demographic Center, classifies each Minnesota county as entirely urban, entirely rural, or somewhere in between (for full background, these classifications are informed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural-Urban Commuting Area or RUCA standard, which defines census tracts not just according to raw population thresholds, but also things like density and lifestyle).
As you can see in the chart above, Sanders and Warren see dropping performance as counties grow more rural. Meanwhile Biden and Bloomberg see rising performance, with one exception coming from that same noise brought by Klobuchar voters in the most rural counties.
Minnesota in Context: The Role of Rural Voters Going Forward
In the coming weeks, rural voters in a number of other Midwest and Great Lakes states will have the opportunity to cast their votes in the primary contest. States like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in particular will be watched closely, given their role in the general election’s Electoral College strategy. How Biden and Sanders perform in these places will likely loom large over debates about electability and how to best take on President Trump.
Whenever Klobuchar leaned into her rural and Midwest pitch, referencing how she went into counties carried by Trump and won them, there’s little doubt her model of coalition building had states like Michigan and Wisconsin in mind. Given their geographic proximity to Minnesota, and some cultural similarities too, these were states that in theory would be receptive to Klobuchar’s policy approach and brand of politics.
Keep in mind, Minnesota, like its Midwest neighbors, has a strong progressive tradition, but has become more politically competitive of late. Minnesota has voted for the Democratic candidate in every presidential election since 1972, including President Reagan’s Electoral College victory everywhere but here in 1984. But President Trump came close to flipping the state in 2016, like he did Michigan and Wisconsin, and his campaign is claiming it can add Minnesota to his tally this time around.
Klobuchar was the counterstrike to that advance. The thrust of her campaign was that she could go into the more rural, conservative parts of these states and replicate the success she’s had winning those voters here in Minnesota. Coming out of Super Tuesday, she’s now betting that Joe Biden is the best person to do that job, in effect rebuilding the Democrat’s proverbial “Blue Wall.”
Here in Minnesota, voters outside of the cities seem to believe that theory carries some water. Now, we’ll see if voters beyond “Klobuchar country” think so too.
Adam B. Giorgi is the director of digital strategy at the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder. He previously worked in political reporting at NBC News and strategic communications for the administration of former Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton. He holds a master’s degree in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.