ST. PAUL — With only two weeks to go until the 2020 presidential election, nearly 1.2 million Minnesotans have already voted absentee as of Friday, Oct. 23.

That is approximately 75% more than the number absentee ballots successfully cast ahead of Election Day 2016 in Minnesota, by comparison, and 45% of the total number of votes cast in that election.

All told, it's estimated that an unprecedented 40% of Minnesota voters may cast their ballots early, either in-person or by mail in this year's general election.

"Such a huge percentage is not going there on game day," Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, whose office oversees elections in Minnesota, said in an interview earlier this month.

Many are choosing to vote early this year in what appears to be an effort to avoid exposure to the coronavirus at polling places on Election Day, further demonstrating the effect the pandemic is having on turnout. Having devastated the U.S. economy and sickened or killed hundreds of thousands throughout the U.S., the pandemic has radically altered the discourse around the election as well.

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It is in this environment that Minnesota, a reliably blue-voting state over the past 11 presidential elections, is now considered in-play by Republicans, who have campaigned in the state like no other time in recent history. That focus has forced Democrats to turn their attention (and resources) to the North Star State.

Following a summer of civil unrest and amid his administration's floundering response to the pandemic, however, it remains to be seen whether President Donald Trump's campaign can successfully recast the election as a referendum on law and order and flip Minnesota in his favor. Even in a state Trump came within 1.5 percentage points of winning in 2016 , and where the recent unrest began in May with George Floyd's death in police custody, the president has his doubters.

"I would say that unless we have a scenario where the polls are even less reflective of the actual ballots cast than they were four years ago, it does seem that (Joe) Biden is in a slightly stronger position than Hillary Clinton was in retrospect," said Eric Ostermeier, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Ostermeier, author of the blog Smart Politics, said in an interview that there is still reason to not count out a Republican victory in Minnesota entirely. He said the state, which famously hasn't voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Richard Nixon in 1972, is still a competitive one, having been decided by single-digits in seven of the last 11 presidential election cycles.

Further, he said, U.S. presidential elections in 25 states have been decided by fewer than two points since 1988

including Minnesota in 2016. Slightly more than half those states, he said, flipped in the subsequent presidential election.

The 2018 midterm elections, meanwhile, marked just the second time in the last century that Republicans flipped a U.S. House seat in Minnesota.

It makes sense, then, that Trump would invest and campaign heavily in the state, Ostermeier said. Just as Republicans are oft said to be incapable of taking the White House without winning Ohio, he said, Democrats are similarly reliant on Minnesota.

No Democratic presidential candidate has won an election without Minnesota's support since Woodrow Wilson in 1916. But despite those accomplishments, Ostermeier said, Minnesota still finds itself in the longest streak of Democratic victories for state offices in its history.

"There have been opportunities along the way to have broken the streak, but they’ve just fallen short, and frequently by single digits, multiple times," Ostermeier said. "So I don’t necessarily see this last two to four years as a big change toward the Republican Party in this state."

Recent history hasn't deterred Trump from campaigning in the state. It appears to have had the opposite effect: He and members of his family have visited Minnesota multiple times in recent months, holding large rallies despite public health concerns, while Biden has visited the state in-person only once.

It would be unusual for a traditional Republican candidate to pay so much attention to Minnesota, according to Denise Cardinal, executive director of the left-leaning political group WIN Minnesota. Long viewed as a reliably blue state, she said, Minnesota typically doesn't receive much attention even from Democratic presidential contenders.

Trump's near-win in Minnesota four years ago may help to explain his campaign's strategy for capturing the state's 10 electoral votes in 2020. It also reinvigorated fundraising and ad spending efforts among Democrats, according to Cardinal.

Biden's campaign has so far raised $7.4 million in Minnesota, according to recent Federal Elections Commission data, compared to the Trump campaign's $5.5 million. Clinton's campaign raised just $5.1 million in 2016; by comparison, the Trump campaign just $1.4 million four years ago.

"I always say now, we just cannot take Minnesota for granted in the way that we thought we could for the last 15 years, and 2016 taught us that," Cardinal said.

If Trump does win, Ostermeier said, there will be competing theories as to why. One might be that Biden, whose low-key campaign has consisted mostly of digital events following the outbreak of the coronavirus, failed to appeal to voters in the same way that Trump boisterously has.

According to Peter Rachleff, a professor of history at Macalester College in St. Paul, party loyalty has shifted, particularly in the Iron Range and in southern Minnesota, because Trump is viewed by residents there as a defender of a kind of cultural conservatism, even if he "doesn’t seem to lead his lifestyle according to those values and precepts." Trump's promise to restore greatness also has an audience in regions where downturns in the mining and meatpacking industries led to economic anxiety.

For Democrats to win back the support of disaffected voters in those parts of Minnesota, and retain control into the future, they may well have to embrace more progressive factioneers than Biden and Clinton, Rachleff said.

"That is the wing of the Democratic Party that recognizes that the problems that workers and farmers in Minnesota face did not begin with Donald Trump," Rachleff said.

Contact Matthew Guerry at mguerry@forumcomm.com or 651-321-4314

Election history

Minnesota has not chosen a Republican for president since Richard M. Nixon in 1972. Meanwhile, no Democrat has ever won the presidency without winning Minnesota.

Here is a look back at the last 48 years in presidential outcomes in Minnesota, with total votes and percentages for the state. A plus sign represents Minnesota's winner; an asterisk represents the eventual winner.

2016

  • * Donald Trump (R): 1,323,232; 44.93%
  • + Hillary Clinton (D): 1,367,825; 46.44%

2012

  • +* Barack Obama (D): 1,54 6,167; 52.65%

  • Mitt Romney (R): 1,320,225; 44.96%

2008

  • +* Barack Obama (D): 1,573,354; 54.06%
  • John McCain (R): 1,275,409; 43.82%

2004

  • * George W. Bush (R): 1,346,695; 47.61%
  • + John Kerry (D): 1,445,014; 51.09%

2000

  • * George W. Bush (R): 1,109,659; 45.50%
  • + Al Gore (D): 1,168,266; 47.91%

1996

  • +* Bill Clinton (D): 1,120,438; 51.10%
  • Bob Dole (R): 766,476; 34.96%
  • Ross Perot (I): 257,704; 11.75%

1992

  • +* Bill Clinton (D): 1,020,997; 43.48%
  • George H.W. Bush (R): 747,841; 31.85%
  • Ross Perot (I): 62,506; 23.96%

1988

  • * George H.W. Bush (R): 962,337; 45.90%
  • + Michael Dukakis (D): 1,109,471; 52.91%

1984

  • * Ronald Reagan (R): 1,032,603; 49.54%
  • + Walter Mondale (D): 1,036,364; 49.72%

1980

  • * Ronald Reagan (R): 873,241; 42.56%
  • + Jimmy Carter (D): 954,174; 46.50%
  • John B. Anderson (I): 174,990; 8.53%

1976

  • +* Jimmy Carter (D): 1,070,440; 54.90%
  • Gerald Ford (R): 819,395; 42.02%

1972

  • +* Richard Nixon (R): 898,269; 51.58%
  • George McGovern (D): 802,346; 46.07%