Northland takes center stage as national political backdrop
Presidential campaigns make a top priority out of mobilizing voters in Duluth and Northeastern Minnesota.
A week ago it was Joe Biden, Democratic presidential nominee, campaigning in Duluth.
Before that, Donald Trump Jr. came through less than two weeks after Vice President Mike Pence spoke along the port in the last week of August.
And before that it was the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, this summer and even President Trump himself at Amsoil Arena before the midterms in 2018.
On the other side, Chelsea Clinton came to Duluth in support of her mother, Hillary, in 2016, and later, so did Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. Not to mention regular visits from U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith.
It’s been one big name after another as Democrats and Republicans strive for the presidency. Late Friday it was learned that President Trump will return to campaign in Duluth again, at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Duluth International Airport.
All the VIP activity yields the question: Why do Duluth and Northeastern Minnesota make for such an appealing national political backdrop?
The News Tribune asked three political experts about the area’s clout nationally. They examined history, the changing cultural landscape and even geography to assemble an answer.
“When you have larger-scale shifting or movement, or a sense that things are a little bit more in play, then you’re going to attract national attention,” Don Ness said. “Unfortunately, the reality is there are fewer and fewer areas of the country that feel in play after having gone through this giant political sorting process of the last two decades.”
Ness, the former Duluth mayor, was joined in commenting this week by political science professor Cindy Rugeley, of the University of Minnesota Duluth, and political science instructor Steve Potts, of Hibbing Community College.
Ness was talking about the dramatic shift to the Republican side by voters in rural areas surrounding Duluth. They carried Trump to a 16-point advantage in the 8th District in 2016.
Two years later, U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, a Republican, won election to the 8th, going against a blue wave nationally. Potts credited the 2012 improbable win by Republican Chip Cravaack with breaking a glass ceiling created by local Democratic icons Jim Oberstar and John Blatnik.
“Anything now is fair game,” Potts said of the Northland.
Under that volatility, Duluth and the Northland become a good place for candidates to visit or keep pumping through surrogates with big-name recognition.
“For people like Don Jr. and Ivanka, this is a good stopping point because you get a lot of attention and it enables them to appeal to a lot of different audiences,” Rugeley said. “Honestly, some of it is Stauber, too. He’s so active in the Trump campaign — he's just brought them here.”
All of the experts agreed on one current motivation driving the area’s attractiveness: Trump made a point of targeting Minnesota after coming close in 2016, when he lost the state to Hillary Clinton by 1.5 percentage points. He’s not backing down from the trophy now as he tries to become the first Republican to take Minnesota since Richard Nixon in 1972.
“To a certain extent with Trump, pride became involved,” Rugeley said. “Once you say something like that, you’ve really got to try to do it.”
The result has been continued, prolonged attention from the Trump campaign, along with Biden’s counterpunch last week.
It wasn’t always that way, Ness said.
“What we would see 20 years ago is that candidates would show up, especially Democratic candidates, in the last two weeks and do the get-out-the-vote push,” Ness said. “That is changing pretty significantly over the past 10 years.”
Instead of driving one bloc of voters to vote in numbers, the sense now is that, because of the cultural shift in rural areas, the Northland is an even more fertile place to mine for votes and stir attention.
“Part of it is we have this reputation for being political animals; everybody votes and is concerned about politics,” Potts said. “It’s in our lifeblood.”
Candidates and their flag-bearers coming into the Northland are able to congeal around a traditional kind of politics, Potts continued. They’re not compelled to address Black Lives Matter or illegal immigration, and, indeed, tend not to while they’re here. Instead, they get to pitch economic perspectives, defend Social Security, and harp on health care.
“Some of the issues that might show up on the Washington Post as top 10 news items are not going to be of great concern up here, where they’re focused on job-related, bread-and-butter issues,” Potts said, noting an rural audience skewing older and mostly white.
Other points of attraction:
Thanks to projects once carried by infrastructure maven Oberstar, the Northland features modern airports, making it easy to get in and out.
A stop in the Northland also brings what Rugeley termed “a twofer,” earning coverage in Minnesota and Wisconsin media markets.
So do the tickets get bang for their buck?
Potts thinks so.
“That personal connection — that’s going to get a lot of people out to vote,” Potts said.
Rugeley said the attention is designed to make sure everybody knows candidates aren’t taking votes for granted. Hillary Clinton was criticized after 2016 for avoiding Wisconsin and losing the state to Trump.
“Everything a campaign does they do to mobilize voters," Rugeley said. "So, it does have a mobilizing effect.”