Minnesota is known for its quirky politics. Minnesotans and late-night comedians all remember when a former professional wrestler who was not aligned with either of the major parties was elected governor in 1998.
Then there’s this geographic oddity: Even as Republicans have locked down the rest of rural America, the DFL — even our name for Democrats is different — continues to compete outside major cities.
You will also hear claims about how Minnesotans are independent voters prone to ticket splitting, which is voting for Democrats and Republicans on the same ballot. So, for example, Gov. Mark Dayton was elected in 2010 despite a wave that vaulted Republicans into the majority in both the House and Senate. And, although Dayton and Sen. Al Franken were easily re-elected in 2014, Republicans took the House, giving the state divided government.
But a closer look at the data reveals that Minnesota politics increasingly resembles the characteristics seen around the rest of the country: Minnesota is highly polarized, partisan and becoming more geographically predictable all the time, according two political scientists.
Boris Shor of Georgetown University mapped the ideological polarization of the Legislatures in every state by examining voting records of lawmakers. They define polarization as the average ideological distance between the median Democrat — sorry, DFL as we call them in Minnesota — and median Republican in the Legislature.
Minnesota is 10th most polarized, meaning the average DFL legislator is quite far from her average GOP colleague, even if the legislators are usually “Minnesota nice” to each other.
Voters here are also quite likely to link their vote for president to their votes in legislative races.
Carl Klarner, a political scientist who maintains a database on state legislative elections, said Minnesota voters are more likely to match their partisan presidential and legislative votes than voters in all but five states.
“To understand Minnesota, look national,” he said in a phone interview.
So, when DFLers show up to vote for president, they also pull the lever for Democratic legislative candidates. From that standpoint, the advantage this year: DFL.
In fact, the linkage is so tight you can make a bet with your political junkie friends: With data about the presidential race in hand, two-thirds of the time you could guess the results of the legislative races correctly, within 5 percentage points.
Finally, after adjusting for uncontested races, Klarner found that the DFL won 50.7 percent of the overall votes in 2014, but came away with 46.3 percent of the seats in the Legislature.
How could that be?
It’s because DFLers are all packed into a smaller group of legislative districts clustered around the cities, while Republicans are more evenly spread out, giving their voters more influence in more districts.