Biden won big in Minnesota. Why didn’t legislative Democrats?

Three people stand at voting booths.
Three voters cast their ballots inside the Weisman Art Museum on the University of Minnesota Campus in Minneapolis Tuesday. Democrat Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump handily in Minnesota, largely because of a huge advantage in Hennepin County.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Joe Biden won Minnesota’s 10 electoral votes for president on the back of the Twin Cities. Despite Donald Trump replicating his unprecedented 2016 dominance in rural Minnesota, Biden racked up even bigger wins in Hennepin County on his way to a 7-point statewide win.

In fact, Biden’s record-large margin of 322,000 votes from Hennepin County alone was bigger than the 310,000 votes Trump won in all of the 74 counties he won combined. Biden’s wins in other counties including Ramsey, Dakota, and St. Louis weren’t necessary — they just padded his lead. 

2020 election margins in Minnesota by county
Joe Biden's victory in Minnesota was powered by a huge margin in Hennepin County, which alone gave him more votes than all of Donald Trump's counties combined.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

But even as Biden won Minnesota comfortably, Republicans appear to have maintained control of the Minnesota Senate, though this could change as final votes are counted over the coming days. It’s a split decision that highlights the electoral power of DFL voters in the Twin Cities metro — and the limits of that power.

Part of that difference might be explained by significant votes for candidates running in third-party pro-marijuana parties, who in a few key districts received more votes than the margin between the victorious Republican candidate and the Democratic candidate. Reports have suggested some of these candidates may have been recruited by Republicans to pull votes away from DFL candidates

But these political games, if true, only partly explain why Democrats struggled in the battle for the Senate despite Biden’s comfortable statewide win. 

DFL dominant only in statewide races

Biden’s win extended a long Democratic winning streak in Minnesota. No Republican candidate for president has won Minnesota since Richard Nixon in 1972. And no Republican has won any statewide office in Minnesota since Tim Pawlenty was elected governor in 2006. 

But this dominance applies only to statewide races. 

Control of the state Legislature has been more of a seesaw affair. From 2010 to 2020, control of the Minnesota House of Representatives has changed four times, and the Senate three times. That includes the split verdict from 2020’s preliminary results, in which the House appears to have stayed Democratic while the Senate stayed Republican. 

The contrast reflects the different ways statewide and legislative elections are decided. In a statewide race, votes from anywhere help a candidate win. Running up the score in one party’s stronghold can provide a cushion to counter losses elsewhere. 

But control of the Legislature is decided in dozens of individual races. Running up the score in one district affects only that district, not any other.

As a result, DFL candidates for the Minnesota Senate have combined for 50.7 percent of the total votes cast for Senate candidates — but are on track to capture only 49.2 percent of the seats. (That’s up from 47.8 percent earlier Wednesday, before newly counted votes swung a closely contested seat into the DFL camp.).

This 1.5 percentage point gap between seats and votes isn’t unusual, historically, but it matters a lot more when it’s a party with 50.7 percent of the vote and 49.2 percent of the seats than if it were between a party with 55.2 percent of the vote and 53.7 percent of seats — or another scenario where control of the chamber wasn’t at stake.

DFL faces ‘efficiency gap’

Imagine a state populated by 100 Democrats and 100 Republicans that was divided into four districts of 50 people each. If one district had 40 Democrats and 10 Republicans, the other three districts could have 20 Democrats and 30 Republicans each, giving a 3-1 majority for Republicans even though the population was divided evenly. 

In real life, Minnesota Democrats aren’t nearly so disadvantaged. Districts can be drawn to pack the other party’s voters into a small number of districts — part of a process called “gerrymandering.” But Minnesota’s legislative districts were drawn by nonpartisan judges, not gerrymandering politicians, because control of Minnesota government was divided during redistricting a decade ago. (That’s likely to happen again next year if Democrats don’t come back to take the Minnesota Senate as final votes are tallied.)

The result is that Minnesota Democrats face a mild disadvantage based on how their votes are concentrated in their Twin Cities strongholds — and this isn’t new. 

In almost every legislative election this century, Minnesota Democrats have had more “wasted” votes than Republicans, calculated using an “efficiency gap” formula designed by Nicholas Stephanopoulos and Eric McGhee. The efficiency gap compares the total number of votes “wasted” by either being cast for a losing candidate, or for a winning candidate in excess of the minimum number needed to win. It’s a rough way to quantify how a party’s votes are distributed between various legislative districts.

DFL candidates face "efficiency gap" in legislative races
DFL candidates for Legislature tend to "waste" more votes on uncompetitive districts than Republicans do.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

The DFL has faced this efficiency gap in almost every election except for 2006 and 2008, good elections for the DFL that saw them pick up seats in rural areas as well as the metro.

Don’t forget ticket-splitters

But the inefficient distribution of DFL voters is only a small part of the story. Democrats have faced significant efficiency gaps in races where they won big majorities, such as 2012 and 2018. And their efficiency gap was smaller in 2016 and 2020, when they lost the battle for the Senate, than in 2012, when they won it.

This efficiency gap doesn’t mean Democrats can’t win control of the Legislature, or even that they’re at a disadvantage. It just means that they can’t bring the full weight of their base voters to bear on legislative races in the same way that they can on statewide races. 

That handicap means Democratic candidates for Legislature have recently had to struggle against a particular obstacle for a blue state: ticket-splitters.

Voters who split their ticket between candidates of different parties are much less common than they used to be, but they exist in Minnesota and have had significant impacts on control of the Minnesota Legislature. 

That’s especially evident in 2020, where six different DFL Senate candidates are currently losing in districts where Biden beat Trump. Only two Trump districts are being led by DFL candidates.

Senate DFLers trail in six districts Biden won; lead in 2 Trump seats
As of Wednesday evening, Senate DFL candidates trail in six districts that voted for Joe Biden, while two Senate DFL candidates had leads in districts that voted for Donald Trump.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

That difference is the story of the Republican lead for control of the Senate. Biden leads in 37 Senate districts, enough for a majority. But more Minnesotans appear to have voted for Biden and a Republican Senate candidate than Trump and DFL candidate.

That’s not a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s been a consistent development for much of the past decade. In five of the past six elections, more Minnesota voters split their ticket between Democratic candidates for president or governor and Republican legislative candidates than vice versa. 

GOP votes for legislative candidates vs top-of-the-ticket candidates
Since 2014, Republican candidates for the Legislature have combined to get more votes than the GOP candidates for president or governor.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

It’s unclear whether this development is durable, or if it’s a phase as part of a political realignment here that sees some former Republicans move into the Democratic Party, first for statewide races and only later for the Legislature.

Whatever the answer is, it’s been an enduring source of strength for Minnesota Republicans even as they struggle to win statewide races. 

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