The new paradigm in Minneapolis politics

Copyright 2006 by Tony L. Hill

A new pattern is shaping up in how critical elections in Minneapolis are played out. First, here is a look at the old paradigm which shaped Minneapolis politics for most of the 20th century.

Minneapolis has a reputation as one of the most liberal cities in the country. The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) enjoys such broad hegemony in the city that the Republican Party for practical purposes doesn't exist. No one has been elected to the city council as a Republican since 1983, and the last Republican mayor was elected in 1959. The city has not sent a Republican to the state legislature since 1980. A series of maps will illustrate the evolution of Minneapolis in a nutshell. Democratic precincts are in shades of red and Republican precincts in shades of blue.

The first map shows the 1932 presidential election. Franklin D. Roosevelt carried most of the city, including nearly all of the northern half and the easterly part of the South Side. His strongest support was in the blue-collar precincts lining the Mississippi River north of downtown. Herbert Hoover carried roughly the southwest quadrant (including the chain of lakes) and most of Southeast Minneapolis (that part of Minneapolis east of the Mississippi River and south of E. Hennepin Ave.).

By 1945, the DFL had been formed and Hubert Humphrey swept more than three-fourths of the city. The Republicans had to retreat to their corner. Southeast Minneapolis was now solidly DFL. This reflects the democratization of higher education; U of M students who can swing Southeast were by this time not drawn solely from the ranks of the upper classes. By that time, the strongest DFL area was the Near North side, just northwest of downtown, then in the process of going from Jewish to black.

By 1970, the Republicans were only able to deny Humphrey a few precincts in the southwest quadrant.

By 1984, the political transformation that swept Republicans from the city was nearly complete, and despite a national landslide, President Ronald Reagan was only able to carry four precincts in Minneapolis, and only two of them in the old Southwest Minneapolis Republican base. Precincts that were once dark blue were now pink, narrowly captured by Walter F. Mondale. Another area of strong DFL support was the city's second black community due south of downtown.

By the 2000 presidential election, the Republicans were only able to take one precinct, in the exact geographic center of the city. Due mostly to Ralph Nader's siphoning of the white Democratic vote, the only areas in intense red are black neighborhoods. The geographic pattern of nearly all recent elections in Minneapolis resembles the last three maps.

Thus, the old paradigm of competition between Democrats and Republicans that defined the city's politics since its founding was made irrelevant. Politics in Minneapolis is no longer about Democrats and Republicans. So what is the new paradigm that defines the critical junctures in the city's politics?

Since the Republicans were made irrelevant, a new axis has emerged from the old Republican base. The same areas of the city that went for Herbert Hoover in 1932 are the base of a new political cleavage in Minneapolis.
In 2005, DFL Mayor R.T. Rybak was re-elected, with his most solid support coming from former Republican areas, including the lakes district and Southeast Minneapolis. The areas of Minneapolis that have historically shown the strongest support for the DFL gave greater support to Rybak's opponent, DFL County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin.

In 2006, the same pattern emerged in the contest for Hennepin County Attorney. Mike Freeman was elected but the same cleavage emerged in which support for Freeman's challenger, Andy Luger, was strongest in former Republican areas of the city.

In 2006, voters approved an amendment to the Minneapolis city charter which will provide for a form of voting usually called Instant Runoff Voting. Although the amendment prevailed in all but four precincts in the city, the new paradigm in Minneapolis politics held, with support for the amendment being strongest in the former Republican areas.

The new paradigm in Minneapolis seems to be related to class and race, with the white, highly affluent, highly educated voters of the southwest quadrant and the University area preferring a different set of candidates and issues from the more racially diverse, less affluent, working class voters of the rest of the city.

The paradigm is highly salient in contests between two DFLers but does not hold in traditional Democrat vs. Republican contests, as the following maps show.

However, as critical contests in Minneapolis -- especially in municipal politics -- move away from traditional Democrat/Republican contests and more are contests between two DFLers, the new paradigm becomes highly salient.