The Rural-Urban Divide is Clear, but Major Policy Change May Have to Wait

by: Timothy Lindberg, Assistant Professor of Political Science, and Roger Rose, Director of Center for Small Towns

The blog here at the Center for Small Towns rarely dives into political patterns, largely for practical reasons. As our work centers mostly on the challenges confronting regional communities and organizations, it is hard to draw meaningful conclusions and implications about political and policy outcomes in St. Paul or Washington D.C. We have been aware of emerging evidence and public discussion of a potential rural-urban divide, even if the practical impacts of this trend were not clear. But after the 2016 election, Minnesota is now clearly polarized. Broad DFL support is now largely confined to the core Metro area (urban and inner-suburbs), a few spots of the Iron-Range and the state’s other urban areas, while the GOP has become the party of Greater Minnesota and metro-area exurbs. With this election, the GOP now has the majority power in the legislature to more clearly represent these regions.  In this post, we discuss and show the trends in geographical support for our two principles parties, and then suggest a few possible policy outcomes that will impact the West Central region.

A Minnesota Rural-Urban Divide is Now Very Clear

The 2016 elections brought forth a strong wave of Republican voting in many rural areas of the Midwest, from the western counties of Pennsylvania up through the Dakotas.  Rural Minnesota was part of this shift, voting heavily for the Republican nominee, Donald Trump. Areas that had voted narrowly for Obama in 2012 overwhelmingly supported Trump in 2016. This change, however, was primarily seen only in rural areas of Minnesota. As the table below shows, counties with primarily rural populations declined significantly in the vote share they gave the DFL candidate for President between 2012 and 2016, highlighted by a drop of over 20% in Swift County, a traditionally DFL leaning place. This contrasted with the voting in the Twin Cities metro area, where even the suburbs which had voted just slightly for Romney in 2012, only dropped by 1% in support for Clinton. The core Twin Cities suburbs and the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul also only saw small drops in support for the DFL presidential candidate.


Another way to examine this change is to look at the margins in the presidential elections of 2008, 2012, and 2016. The following maps (Figure 1, below) show the margin in each county across the state (with more blue meaning a larger DFL margin and more red a larger GOP margin). In 2008, a year in which Obama won Minnesota by over 10%, many rural counties voted DFL. The declines in 2012 are clear, reflecting that Obama won Minnesota by just under 8%, but are dramatic for 2016 as Clinton won the state by approximately 1.5%. While we would expect many rural areas to be red as the entire state shifted toward the Republican candidate, what we see is very few rural counties that were even close. indeed, Trump won almost all precincts outside of the Twin Cities, major urban centers like Duluth and Rochester, or cities with universities, such as Northfield, Moorhead, St. Cloud, or Morris, by over 15%. Many of these precincts had voted for Obama in 2008 and remained largely supportive of the DFL 2012.

What remains to be seen is whether this trend continues into the future, or if 2016 was an outlier for Republican support. Regardless, it is clear that the parties that even before 2016 the parties were dividing more clearly between Minnesota’s urban and rural areas. We suspect that given both the strength of GOP support and the demonstrated importance of working-class whites to GOP success, that the Democratic Party will have a difficult road to win back support in Minnesota’s Western, Northwestern and Iron Range regions.

Figure 1: Turning Red: Growing GOP Support in Greater Minnesota from 2008 to 2016.

For more information and more detailed maps visit the Minnesota secretary of state website here

Looking Down the Ballot: GOP Ascendant  

The performance of Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, along with a variety of other issues brought forward by Minnesota State Republicans, most notably the troubled MNsure health exchange, led to an impressive down ballot performance by Republicans in the state House and Senate.  The GOP added to its House majority and now holds a 76-57 margin, and unexpectedly gained a slight edge in the Senate, 34-33 (assuming no change in recount of two very close races).  While the bigger story was the state Senate flipping from a significant DFL lead to a one-seat control for the GOP, the Minnesota House has also become more heavily rural over the past five election cycles. The chart below (Figure 2) shows that while the portion of all GOP seats that are rural has stayed relatively the same since 2008, the portion of all rural districts that are held by Republicans has increased significantly, up to over 80% in 2016.

In other words, while the GOP has long had a majority of rural districts in their caucuses, there is no longer much of a DFL counterweight in rural Minnesota. Thus the legislative rural-urban divide: the GOP is almost entirely an exurban and rural party, the DFL is increasingly urban and virtually absent on the plains.  (See appendix for specific geographic distribution of legislative seats from 2012 to 2016.)


Potential Policy Implications for Greater Minnesota

Since the GOP gained control of the state legislature, it is worth reviewing some of the party’s platform ideas that may impact Minnesota’s rural areas.  Of course, every political party cannot simply convert their platform into policy outcomes, especially since Democratic control of the governor’s office remains a major obstacle confronting the new Republican majorities.  But from our small town vantage point, a few of the GOP priorities expressed in the platform are more likely to gain traction.  

Greater Attention to Outstate Transportation Priorities. The GOP platform called for dedicating all gas and motor vehicle related taxes to road and bridge projects. GOP hostility to Metro Area rail projects exemplifies the party’s concern about the dominance of the Twin Cities in transportation funding.  If big-ticket projects like the expansion of the Green and Blue light rail lines are blocked or modified, and if a Trump administration follows through on a major expansion of infrastructure spending, it is likely that rural Minnesota will see more spending on its roads and bridges.  (We note, however, that Republican US House and Senate leaders are not particularly enthusiastic about a major expansion of public transportation funding on the scale Trump has suggested.) The amount of extra transportation funding for Greater Minnesota, though, will also depend on state legislative support for shoring up gas and motor vehicle taxes, which have been declining due to greater auto efficiency.

An Environmental but not Energy Detour:  While the GOP platform calls for a major shift in Minnesota’s energy and environmental policies, it is far from clear that the legislature would attempt to undo the NextGen Energy Act or remove state incentives for alternative energy.  The principle difficulty is that the 2007 NextGen act is well underway and utilities have already made significant plans and investment to follow the mandate for renewable power.  More relevant to our region, rural Minnesota now clearly benefits from expansion in wind and solar power and the costs of these alternative energy sources continue to decline. The same conundrum faces the Republicans in Washington.  Tax incentives for renewables are now part of rural America’s energy future.  In contrast, the MN GOP’s call for expansion of “clean” coal and nuclear power are expensive and no longer competitive in the market place.  

However, support for environmental regulation, as well as for greener farming and clean water initiatives, is likely to ebb. General hostility to new environmental regulation is a core tenet of the GOP and the party seeks in particular to prevent new regulation of farming, especially on livestock tracking.  Clean water regulation is likely another source of GOP opposition. To touch on just one area, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has issued rules that require some small towns, like Morris, to reduce chloride levels. But Morris cannot fund the project without state support; thus they will watch whether the GOP majorities oppose budget and bonding support for clean water treatment plants. It is also possible that the GOP will attempt to alter or even suspend these new MPCA standards.

Local Government Aid: The Life Blood of Rural Government Funding. The GOP platform also calls for eliminating the current system of Local Government Aid (LGA) funding.  Such a move would devastate rural governments, which rely heavily of LGA support, and so the GOP will move cautiously on such a core rural program.  The more likely path would be an effort to amend LGA formula, possibly trying to shrink the share that goes to Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth. (Most Metro Area suburbs receive little, if any, LGA funding.) As any effort to restrict LGA to the needy urban core cities would be vetoed by Governor Dayton, meaningful change in the LGA formula would come only under unified GOP control of state government.  

The Uncertain Path: Fixing or Eliminating the Affordable Care Act and MNsure.  The Republican legislative majorities are eager to offer an alternative to MNsure, the state’s version of the health care exchange developed in accordance with the ACA.  Dramatic increases in premiums and the loss of price competition caused by insurance firms withdrawing from or capping program enrollment has made the law particular unpopular in Greater Minnesota. But before the GOP moves clearly to reform or repeal state programs under the ACA, the state GOP must first learn the overall future of the federal law.  Currently, there is no Republican alternative ready to be introduced to the new Congress.  Nor is there agreement on how to change the ACA. Will all of the so-called Obamacare law be repealed, including both the individual markets and the expansion of Medicaid? Will some popular and impactful provisions of the law remain?  And would a partial or full repeal take place in 2018 or later? In the short term, of course, Governor Dayton will oppose a repeal of the program, but there could be a short term compromise to reduce the burden of rising insurance rates.  Such a stop-gap measure would be important to small business owners and farmers in Greater Minnesota, even it entails an expansion of budgetary support for MNsure.  One other area where both the House, the Senate and governor can move forward would be to bring greater transparency to the costs of medical care for holders of private insurance and those paying out-of-pocket.  

Other Issues: Of course, there are a range of other issues on the agenda next year that will impact Greater Minnesota. Two key issues are left over from 2016. Both parties sought to offer an individual tax relief package, which the governor vetoed due to an error in drafting the legislation, and most lawmakers wish to pass a bonding bill. The bonding bill certainly impacts the ability of communities across Greater Minnesota to work on specific capital projects. The failure of the tax relief bill not only delayed tax breaks for businesses, but it also contained an upward adjustment in LGA funding for needy cities. That delay has led several small communities, such as Windom, Ely and Olivia, to raise the property tax levy to help offset the loss in LGA support.  

Conclusion: Waiting for the 2018 Election.

The constant theme in looking at the prospects for various policy areas is the uncertainty created by divided government in St. Paul.  Governor Mark Dayton will very likely veto GOP-led bills that challenge the priorities of his administration and the DFL. This points to the importance of the 2018 election for governor.  (State senators will not be facing election.)  As the GOP would expect to hold onto its gains in the MN House during a midterm election, they will view this office as the key to enacting a bolder conservative agenda.  Between now and then, we should expect that rural Minnesota will receive heightened political and policy attention, even if dramatic policy change is not forthcoming.  Along with all the national attention focused on working-class and rural white voters since election day, it seem that that the rural-urban divide will often be front and center of political and policy analysis for years to come.  As issues come up that touch upon CST’s concern for Minnesota’s small towns, we hope to add to the ongoing dialogue by highlighting and offering relevant analysis.

2 thoughts on “The Rural-Urban Divide is Clear, but Major Policy Change May Have to Wait

  1. Wonderful write-up. Very informative. I’m curious as to your thoughts on potential implications of the rural-urban divide on the three rural-dominated U.S. House seats in Minnesota (1, 7, and 8). All three are currently represented by DFL members, but all three are also more blue-doggish relative to the national party, or to potential new DNC chair Keith Ellison (D-MN 5). I find it notable that all three also faced particularly closer races in 2016 than in the midterm of 2014, even Peterson (MN-7) despite the general lack of national or statewide press given to his opponent in 2016 (Hughes) vs. 2014 (Westrom). I don’t think that Minnesota at-large is turning Red, but I do believe that the state’s delegation could soon shift from 5-3 Democrat to 5-3 Republican.

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