Facts don't support GOP Chair Carnahan's election claims

A woman smiles and talks.
Minnesota Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan speaks with members of the audience at a rally for President Donald Trump in Bemidji, Minn., on Sept. 18. Carnahan said this week presidential election results in some of the state’s counties showed “extreme abnormalities.” A check of the vote totals shows the facts don’t back up her claims. 
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Minnesota Republican Party Chair Jennifer Carnahan claimed Thursday night that the state’s 2020 election showed "extreme abnormalities and statistical variations from Minnesota's historic voter trends." But her examples are either off-base, vague or flat-out wrong. 

Carnahan begins with a general claim: It's "unusual" that President Donald Trump did worse in Minnesota in 2020 than 2016, despite putting much more effort into winning the state this year. This is relatively vague, so it's hard to firmly prove or disprove.

Still, while it's true Trump put a lot more effort into Minnesota than he did in 2016, it's also true that Joe Biden put more effort here than Hillary Clinton did. Combine that with a national collapse in support for third-party candidates, and national polling indicating that Biden as a Democratic candidate was more popular than Clinton was, and the idea that Biden might do better isn't absurd.

Regardless, even if you agree with Carnahan that Trump slipping despite putting so much more effort into Minnesota was "unusual," that's not a specific charge of abnormalities. But she does make a second, more specific claim: that it's abnormal that Biden did so much better in six particular counties, "counties that have been shifting away from Democrats since 2008" — St. Louis, Wright, Carver, Scott, Sherburne and Anoka counties.

For example, Carnahan writes, "Democrats saw declining vote totals in two consecutive presidential elections in Wright County, including a 14.8 percent decline in 2016, then in 2020 there was a sudden surge twice as large for Biden with 52.1 percent growth."

There's one problem with this analysis: By looking at raw vote totals for Democratic presidential candidates, it ignores the fact that 2020 was a much higher-turnout election than 2016. 

So while Wright County did go from 20,334 votes for Clinton to 28,427 for Biden, an increase of 8,093 votes or 39.8 percent (not 52.1 percent), it also went from 43,274 Trump votes in 2016 to 51,970 in 2020 — an increase of 8,696 votes or 20.1 percent. Carnahan didn't mention the increase in Republican votes.

However you look at it, though, Trump actually did better in Wright County in 2020 than he did in 2016. By share of the vote, Trump went from 62.2 percent in 2016 to 63.1 percent. By vote margin, he went from 22,940 votes in 2016 to 23,543 this year.

The same story is true in some of the other counties Carnahan highlighted, such as Sherburne County. Just like Wright County, Sherburne County saw sizable jumps in raw votes for both parties over 2016, as more voters turned out. And just like Wright County, Trump actually improved both his share of the vote and his winning vote margin. 

Line graph: Electoral margins, 2002-2020

Carver County was different. Here Trump did worse than 2016, however you measure it. But it's not true that Carver County has been "shifting away from Democrats since 2008." It's actually been shifting toward Democrats for the past two decades. Republican presidential candidates got 62.8 percent of the vote here in 2004, 56.7 percent in 2008, 58.9 percent in 2012, 52.2 percent in 2016, and 51.2 percent in 2020. 

Carnahan's broadest claim does apply to the other three counties she mentioned. St. Louis, Scott and Anoka counties had all gotten more Republican in each presidential election from 2008 to 2016, before moving left in 2020. (Picking 2008 as a starting point makes Carnahan’s argument look stronger, since 2008 was a good Democratic year; all three counties had moved left from 2004 to 2008.)

But in the case of Anoka County, it's 2016, not 2020, that looks like an anomaly. Republican presidential candidates won Anoka by 4,381 votes in 2004, 4,816 in 2008, 17,839 in 2016, and 4,012 in 2020. In fact, Trump actually got fewer Anoka County votes in 2016 than Mitt Romney did in 2012; his big margin came from the fact that lots of 2012 Democratic voters picked third-party candidates in 2016. 

St. Louis County, a traditionally Democratic stronghold on the Iron Range, had given Trump a strong showing in 2016: a relatively narrow loss by just 13,141 votes, compared to Romney losing there by more than 34,000 votes. In 2020, Democrats recovered a little, winning by 18,692 votes. But some of that was again the collapse in votes for third-party candidates, along with across-the-board turnout increases. In 2020, Trump actually improved his share of the St. Louis County vote, from 39.7 percent to 41 percent. 

Finally, we have Scott County, the only county on the list where 2020 was clearly a divergence from recent trends: It had been moving to the right, before turning in its strongest Democratic performance this century in 2020. But the magnitude of the change is small: Trump went from 53.2 percent of the vote in 2016 to 52.1 percent in 2020. A 1.1 percentage point swing in one suburban county is not suggestive of fraud impacting an election where Joe Biden's victory margin was more than 5.5 percentage points bigger than Clinton’s. 

Plus, Scott County moving left wasn't abnormal in context, either. All five of the suburban counties surrounding the Twin Cities moved left in 2020 compared to 2016. So did voters in the suburban parts of Hennepin and Ramsey counties, outside of Minneapolis and St. Paul. This was part of a broader national trend that saw suburban areas move against Trump

Line graph: Suburban Minnesota county electoral Margins.

On top of all that, even if Carnahan's specific claims were accurate and suggestive of fraud, it wouldn't have made a difference. Joe Biden's huge winning margin of 322,047 votes in Hennepin County alone was bigger than Trump's combined margin of 310,315 in all 74 counties he won; Ramsey County and other areas Biden won only padded his margin further.

2020 election margins in Minnesota by county

And there wasn't anything obviously fishy about the Hennepin County numbers, either: Contrary to some Republican claims about suspiciously high turnout there, turnout was actually up by less in Hennepin than in many traditionally Republican counties. The majority of Biden's expanded margin in Hennepin County came from suburban areas, not Minneapolis proper. 

Line graph: DFL rising in Minneapolis, Hennepin County suburbs

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