Upper Midwest Politics — As Blue as the Great Lakes

This map presents a telling breakdown of our country's voting patterns from the previous General Election. Not only does it discount simplistic "Red State/Blue State" rhetoric, but clearly proves America's divides are between cities, their suburbs and college towns, versus the rest of (rural) America. Democrats hold the former, while the GOP grabs the latter. And not too much should change this fall.

But see the north-central portion of the USA.

While it's normal to see blue around cities, the northern tips of very rural Minnesota and Wisconsin are blue (Democrat). There really are no other states like that. Why is this the case? A few weeks back, my fiancée and I drove up from Indiana to learn more.

Politically, the Midwest, with the exception of Ohio and Indiana, was the only non-coastal U.S. region to support Sen. Kerry in 2004. In 1992 and 1996, the Hoosier State was the sole state in this region not to vote for President Clinton.

Prior to this sojourn, I had visited every region east of the Mississippi, except these hinterlands. And though they are gorgeous locales, they're only navigable about three months per year; or more specifically, as a local septuagenarian food stand owner in Duluth put it, "during the halcyon days" between June and August. (This mid-July night, lows actually moved into the upper 40s.)


After an 11 hour ride up from Central Indiana, we spent Saturday night in Saint Cloud, an hour northwest of Minneapolis. Sunday morning, I glanced at a story celebrating a local National Guard engineering unit returning after serving in Iraq. We then began our trek moving north through other surprisingly conservative Minnesota towns along the Mississippi-like Little Falls. The central part of the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" is the largest right-leaning area in this left-leaning state. Catholic churches, war memorials, and American Legion posts are are found in these clean little towns throughout the region.

Farther north at the headwaters of the Mississippi River near Bemidji, we found large families with pick-up trucks and National Guard shirts enjoying the 75 degree weather and history of the area. Moving east across Northern Minnesota toward the Wisconsin border though, the folks' politics take a hard left. At the picturesque Duluth harbor along Lake Superior's western edge, anti-Bush stickers were affixed to many cars with clever slogans like "Bush ran from Vietnam; Bush ran from 9-11. Run, coward, run." "The politics and people of Duluth mirror most mid-size Minnesota cities more accurately than Little Falls," I was told by a local fisherman.

Minnesotans have a long history of socialism from their ancestry in liberal Scandinavian nations, who pride themselves on secular populism and "communal efforts." The Minnesota Farmer Labor Party is well-known, and Minnesota last voted for a Republican presidential candidate during the 49-1 Nixon rout of McGovern 36 years ago. Minnesotans have since voted for Walter Mondale in 1984 (a Native Son, but still the only state he won) and Jimmy Carter twice. They also elected a former wrestler their governor.

This November, former comedian and failed talk show host Al Franken is running for Senate on the Democratic-Farm Labor Party ticket. However, though Minnesota is very liberal, John F. Kerry only won here by four percentage points in 2004. The state has a popular Republican governor in Tim Pawlenty, who many feel is on the so-called "short list" to be McCain's running mate. Those connections to Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark are now 4th and 5th generation, thus fading. And though blonde people and past voting patterns make Minnesota seem homogeneous, their priorities and political beliefs often vary.

At the Duluth harbor on a splendid July evening, this was evident. I spoke with "Gretchen" and "Mark," a recently married late 20s couple with a baby on the way. They support McCain. "We're neither military nor religious, but also don't feel comfortable with Obama," Mark noted, while munching on a cheese curd, popular up here, but rather repulsive tasting to our uncultured Hoosier tongues. As Maria and I shared buffalo wings, Gretchen, whose first election was 2004, added that she was "uncomfortable changing horses in the middle of a stream." Knowingly or not, she borrowed this from the famous 1864 election, when President Lincoln supporters stated such words during pivotal days of the Civil War.

On the other hand, Ruth, who with her four boys runs "Crazy Bills Cheese Curds," is for Obama. Being 76, she has voted for Democrats going back to Adlai Stevenson. And despite Obama's youth, she is not changing. "We don't vote for Republicans, no matter what. Just not gonna happen, and I'm too old to go changing."

The election of 2008 won't be typical anywhere, as recent polls in Minnesota actually show a dead heat. But in the end, with its most urban district headed by Keith Ellison, a Muslim who is also a member of the Farm Labor Party and an Obama supporter, Minnesota seems a safe blue state, despite myriad VFW posts and military families in some areas. The state is a typical mix between urban and rural, but Minnesota's river towns along the Iowa border and cities like Duluth will keep the state blue.


Wisconsin, on the surface, seems similar enough to Minnesota. Both veteran senators (Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl) are strong Democrats, especially Feingold, one of the most liberal members of the Senate and a fierce critic of the Patriot Act since 2001. Despite having teamed with Sen. McCain on the controversial McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act years ago, Feingold is an Obama supporter.