Although Minnesota has given its Electoral College votes to a Republican presidential nominee just once (1972) in the last 50 years--a record of Democratic support unmatched by any other state--the results from the two most recent White House contests suggest that the state isn't necessarily beyond John McCain's reach.
George W. Bush twice came close to winning Minnesota--losing by only 2 percentage points in 2000 and 3 percentage points in 2004. In July, a Quinnipiac University Poll found Democrat Barack Obama locked in a statistical dead heat with the Republican McCain. So if McCain can convince Minnesota suburbanites that his maverick qualities would define his presidency, he has a real chance of carrying the state.
The Twin Cities' suburbs will be a key battleground. Bush carried the nine suburban and exurban counties around Minneapolis and St. Paul for a second time in 2004, increasing his total there by 38,000 votes. John Kerry, meanwhile, increased the Democratic margin in Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, and in Ramsey County, home to St. Paul, by more than 70,000 votes. Moreover, Kerry carried the close-in suburbs of Hennepin, 51 percent to 48 percent.
The party's decision to hold the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul could help McCain win the hearts of suburbanites in the metro area. "The key may be how McCain plays it, or is portrayed, during the convention," said Republican consultant and vote analyst Clark Benson.
Minnesota's relatively high tax rates have helped to make these suburbs and exurbs friendly territory for Republicans, but many other issues in this year's presidential contest are less likely to play to the GOP's advantage. Unlike in 2004, terrorism isn't the dominant topic on voters' minds. The sagging economy and high gasoline prices share the stage with the usual mix of social issues.
"[If] you start talking about abortion and environment, the suburbs come to the Democrats," said Democratic strategist Andy Bechoeffer.
Minnesotans tend to turn out in unusually high numbers, primarily because of the state's progressive traditions and its relatively well-educated electorate. The Census Bureau reported that in 2004, 79 percent of the state's voting-age population cast ballots--the highest participation rate of any state. Neither party, therefore, can expect to gain much advantage by trying to boost turnout.
Minnesota has same-day voter registration, and the Secretary of State's Office reported that 592,421 voters, about one in five, took advantage of this provision in 2004. The surge in Election Day registration does not signify a huge influx of new voters into the state; its population has grown only 5.7 percent since 2000. Nearly all of that same-day activity involves voters who had relocated within the state, often within the Twin Cities metro area.
Because of same-day registration, many Minnesotans who move don't re-register in advance of Election Day. Without easy access to up-to-date addresses, the political parties have a tough time targeting these voters. McCain, lacking the organizational prowess of the Obama campaign, may have his best shot at connecting with Minnesotans on the move during his party's four-day gathering in their state.
This article appears in the Aug. 23, 2008, edition of National Journal.