2016 Overperformers: Minnesota Eight’s Rick Nolan

In Minnesota, we saw some very wild swings in 2016. Because Secretary Clinton tanked in rural districts, but gained in urban areas, Minnesota’s eight-member House delegation has three Trump Democrats and one Clinton Republican.

We’ll be featuring all four of those crossover representatives throughout this series, but today we’re kicking things off with Rep. Rick Nolan (D).

A progressive with a populist style, Nolan represents the 8th Congressional District. Based in the city of Duluth and hugging Lake Superior, it stretches to include the state’s Iron Range. Politically, the district has a very strong Democratic history – so much so that I debated even including Nolan in this series.

For most of the past fifty years, it was represented by Rep. Jim Oberstar (D). Oberstar was a ‘Watergate baby’, first elected in 1974 when Democrats gained 49 House seats as a result of President Nixon’s resignation. Moderate on social issues, he used his clout to look out for the parochial interests of the area; in short, he was a good fit for the district. By the end of his tenure, he chaired the House Transportation Committee. In the GOP wave of 2010, though, he was caught flat-footed; Chip Cravaack (R) narrowly upset Oberstar, becoming the first Republican to represent the area since World War II.

Considering his win a fluke, the DFL (Democrats in MN are known as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party) targeted Cravaack in 2012. Sure enough, the district reverted back to its usual form. Former Rep. Rick Nolan, who represented a neighboring district in the 70s, beat Cravaack by 9%.

Since then, however, Nolan has had noticeably closer races. In 2014, GOP businessman Stewart Mills – known at the time as the ‘Brad Pitt of Minnesota’ for his long hair – made it a serious race. Nolan won, but by a very close 1.4%; perhaps having Sen. Al Franken romping further upballot helped.

Here’s the 2014 vote. The areas closest to Lake Superior, in the east, are Democratic, while the vote gets more Republican as it moves west into central MN, and towards the Twin Cities:

For 2016, Mills cut his hair and ran for a rematch. This time, Nolan ostensibly had the benefit of Presidential-level turnout, but that was where the upticket help ended. Clinton fell through the floor in rural areas of the Great Lakes states, and northern Minnesota was no different. In recent Presidential elections, MN-08 voted Democratic, but only mildly. This time, Trump crushed Clinton by 16% (!):

Despite the carnage at the Presidential level, Nolan won again. While Mills lost, he did cut Nolan’s margin in half – from 1.4% to just .6%:

It seems like elections are increasingly becoming base-driven, and that looks like it was the case here. Compared to 2014, Nolan improved in the areas that vote Democratic, while losing ground in the GOP strongholds:

Nolan also outperformed Clinton in all but about two dozen of the district’s 810 precincts:

In recent elections, the swingiest counties were Aitkin and Pine, which are adjacent counties in the center of of the district. For example, in 2008, Obama carried them both with <50%. In 2012, Romney took pluralities in both. In 2014, they split, again very narrowly – Mills took Aitkin by 84 votes and Pine went to Nolan by 40 votes. In 2016, Nolan lost both clearly – Atkin by 8% and Pine by 4%. But even that was pretty impressive, considering Clinton lost them both by 26%!

In other counties, Nolan’s performance was about average, but Clinton’s numbers were just so bad that his looked decent. Morrison County, which makes up part of MN-08’s southwestern border is a good example. Nolan went from losing it 54/40 in 2014 to 63/37 in 2016. Still, a the Presidential level, it swung from 61/37 Romney to 73/21 Trump.

For comparison to these races, here’s Sen. Al Franken’s win here in 2014. He won statewide by 10% against businessman Mike McFadden (R), and carried MN-08 by almost 12%:

The northeastern half of the district is almost monolithically blue while the western counties are relatively close. In the southern/western GOP counties, many of the smaller towns turn blue in this map. Likewise, in the aforementioned swing counties, Franken won Aitkin 52/44 and Pine 51/43.

While large margins in MN-08 like Franken’s used to be routine for DFL candidates, that might not be the case going forward.

While Clinton’s total collapse here or even Oberstar’s loss here may have seemed surprising, the district has been trending against Democrats for some time.

To be sure, let’s look at the Presidential numbers here over time. We’ll start in 1984, which was an interesting year for the district. Minnesotan Walter Mondale was the Democratic nominee; his home state was the sole state he carried. Though he only carried Minnesota by 3,761 votes, he dominated around in MN-08:

Mondale’s uniquely strong performance gives us something of a historical ‘high water mark’ when looking at the lean of MN-08 vis-a-vis the state, and the national vote.

In 1984, the current MN-08 would have been 15% more Democratic than the state. The Democratic tilt has steadily eroded since then. The ‘turning point’ was in 2008, which was the first year it was more Republican than the state:


The long-term comparison to the national popular vote is even more stark. In 1984, the current MN-08 was almost 34% to the left of the national vote, and ended up nearly 18% to the right in 2016. The ‘turning point’ year in this scenario is a few cycles later, though, in 2016:


Also, going back to Nixon’s landslide in 1972, MN-08 would have still voted for George McGovern 52/46. This put it 11.5% to the left of MN, and 29% to the left of the national vote.

With 2018 statewide elections, it will be interesting to see how Presidential trends manifest themselves into downballot races. As of 2014, the district retained it Democratic lean. Currently, DFL candidates hold all of Minnesota’s statewide offices. Further, all of them carried MN-08 by a greater margin then they did the state in 2014:

We’ll have to wait and see what this chart looks like after 2018.

As for Nolan, if runs again, he’ll likely have coattails from the state’s other Senator, the very popular Amy Klobuchar (D). On the other hand, both Klobuchar and Nolan’s name have been mentioned as possible Gubernatorial candidates; if either of them takes the plunge, open seats are always very much worth watching.