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A Very Confusing Trip To Minnesota That Sums Up A Very Confusing Presidential Campaign

For all the talk of a constantly shifting election, my trip to Minnesota showed how things may not be changing much. Voters know what they care about, and their minds are made up.

Posted on September 24, 2020, at 5:25 p.m. ET

Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Bemidji Regional Airport in Bemidji, Minnesota, Sept. 18.

MINNEAPOLIS — When I booked my flight here, the presidential race was tightening, a massive backlash was brewing against Black Lives Matter in the Midwest, and Minnesota was a swing state. By the time I landed there a week later, it didn’t, it hadn’t, and it wasn’t.

This has been the 2020 pattern. All year, huge news events have seemed to swing the gravity of the presidential race, only to turn out to barely register in polls or on the ground. Voters, it keeps turning out, know what they care about. More than ever, their minds feel made up.

Two days into my trip to Minnesota, there was another seismic event that was supposed to change everything: the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and a last-minute fight for a suddenly vacant seat on the Supreme Court.

When the news hit, I was outside a campaign rally President Donald Trump was holding in Bemidji in northern Minnesota — a city no sitting president had ever visited. Right away, news outlets started talking about how Ginsburg’s death had “upended the presidential race.”

The sun was setting, and across from the hangar where the rally was being held, Trump supporters had parked their cars on a stretch of dry grass like tailgaters, trying to catch a glimpse of Air Force One across the way and blasting Trump’s speech from truck radios. Trump apparently did not even know yet that Ginsburg had died, but the focus on his campaign’s "law and order" message already felt like old news.

Outside the rally, a group of men who said they’d arrived too late to get into the hangar were drinking beers under a Trump flag that hung from the trunk of a car. I asked if they thought Ginsburg’s death would make a difference in the election.

At first they looked at me blankly. “Who’s that?”

“I think just about everybody’s already made up their minds,” his friend said. “Even if you say you haven’t, when you’re in there to vote, it’s gonna be, ‘Do you like the way the last four years have gone? Or do you not?’ That’s about it.”

A third friend raised his beer. “No matter what, there’s no way he’s going to lose,” he said.

Another voter, Chris, who said he was an evangelical Christian, told me the most important issue for him in the election was Trump. “I heard about that,” Chris said when I asked about Ginsburg. He didn’t seem to think it would matter in the election one way or another.

“I guess I think it probably energizes both sides,” Chris said.

This whole year, the search for shifting narratives by the media and by campaigns — particularly Republicans — has stood in contrast to a race whose contours had stayed mostly the same.

Impeachment, the movement for racial justice, the president’s reported comments about the military, the threat to the United States Postal Service. Joe Biden led Trump in polls both nationally and in key swing states at the start of the general election, and he still does now with 40 days to go. A national poll this week found only 4% of voters hadn't yet decided whom they would vote for, a smaller number than Biden's overall lead in the poll.

Trump could still win — it doesn’t take much more than a small polling error or a shift in voter turnout to tip the Electoral College’s balance — but it’s hard not to get the impression that voters' minds have been made up for quite some time.

Trump, though, has had something of an obsessive focus on Minnesota for years.

People on a sidewalk hold signs that say "Peace takes respect and kindness" and "Vote — Keep Minnesota blue"
Stephen Maturen / Getty Images

Biden supporters on a sidewalk downtown before Trump's campaign stop in Bemidji, Minnesota, Sept. 18.

In 2016, he lost the state by just 1.5 points — despite barely visiting during his campaign. Since then, he thinks things in the state have changed in his favor: His campaign has taken the state much more seriously; a Democrat-heavy district elected one of Republicans’ most hated opponents, Rep. Ilhan Omar; and Minnesota, a mostly white state, became the epicenter of Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. In 2018, Republicans actually managed to flip two Democratic House seats, though they also lost two red ones.

If there was a white backlash to BLM, people thought — if the former blue wall was tipping back toward Trump — it would be happening in Minnesota.

But soon after Kenosha, polls of Minnesota, which had been sparse so far, started to come out one after another. Trump was behind by nine points, fifteen points. The Minneapolis suburbs seem to have shifted since 2016 — against Trump.

Looking back, the only event that really seems to have changed the race was the pandemic. Which makes sense, in a way. Everything else can seem fleeting compared to the weight of the virus on all of us, the shifts in our daily lives that still haven’t been reversed, the visual reminders everywhere you turn.

In rural Minnesota, things seemed to be proceeding mostly as usual. But in the Minneapolis suburbs, where Republicans desperately need to make inroads, many Republican candidates had dramatically altered their campaigns to limit the spread of the coronavirus. There were few events to go to.

The Democratic Party in Minnesota is called the Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party — a name that once reflected a coalition of big cities like Minneapolis and rural areas like the union-heavy mining region called the Iron Range.

But since 2016, like in so many other places, the state has cleaved almost in two. Rural Democratic areas swung to Trump — he won Bemidji’s Beltrami County by 10 points in 2016, after Obama won it by nearly the same margin in 2008. The once-conservative Minneapolis suburbs shifted to Democrats, especially in 2018.

The day after Ginsburg died, I spent the day on what felt like the opposite spectrum of the Minnesota Republican Party from what I’d seen in Bemidji. In the suburban 2nd District, Republican Tyler Kistner had been running to take back a congressional seat that had once solidly belonged to his party. A Democrat, Rep. Angie Craig, won it in 2018.

Kistner, who is 33, is a wiry, clean-shaven retired Marine in flannel and skinny jeans. He’d just finished a 100-mile run across the district, stopping along the way at local businesses and police stations. He held the final event of the run on the green lawn of a business in Burnsville, where he posed for a picture with a few dozen attendees and a Blue Lives Matter flag.

Jeff Schuette, the chair of the 2nd District GOP, said he felt energy for Republicans in the district that was “completely different” than in 2018.

For Republicans in the district, he said, a trio of issues dominate the conversation: the economy, the virus, and public safety — in that order.

Schuette, who put on a bright red GOP mask to talk to me, said suburban voters are legitimately concerned about the virus — but they see the regulations imposed by Minnesota’s Democratic governor as overreach, too. They want restaurants and businesses to reopen, he said.

Schuette thinks the Minneapolis protests will help his party out in the wealthy, mostly white suburbs. “I’ve gone to maybe 10 Democratic doors where you ask, ‘What’s most important to you?’ and they’ve said, ‘Please don’t let the riots come out here to Burnsville.’”

But when it comes to Ginsburg’s death, Schuette just wasn’t sure what it would mean.

“I guess as a [party] chair, I’m trying to maintain some sort of semblance of what we’re trying to do,” Schuette said. “I would have preferred that she wouldn’t have passed away, I really would.”

“It’s way above my pay grade,” he said. “I guess if you want my opinion, I don’t know. I really don’t. I don’t know which would be better. They try to use precedents, but then you have — If President Trump loses and we didn’t appoint someone, then that would be bad. So I don’t know.”

But Kistner, Schuette’s top candidate in the district, thought of the politics of Ginsburg’s death differently.

“This is going to become another key issue,” he said. “What helped Trump in 2016? Justices. This is going to be another one. As energized as they already are, this is just one more thing to add on to the swing voters.”

I asked about whether he talked about issues like abortion much with voters. “I’m pro-life,” Kistner said. “If it comes up, I’ll talk about it.”

It was the same way for the rest of the evening. No one brought up Ginsburg to me. There were so many other things on everyone’s minds.

On Thursday, the race in the 2nd District was completely, truly upended — this time without question. A third-party candidate’s death triggered an unusual state law that meant that the election for the district’s seat would be canceled and replaced by a special election in February 2021. The votes that have already been cast for Kistner or Craig will not be counted.

“I can’t tell you anything that’s going on,” Schuette, baffled, told me on the phone minutes after the news broke. “Can anything else happen in 2020? If aliens landed on the White House lawn, I don’t even know…”

Joe Biden, wearing a face mask and aviator sunglasses, waves in front of reporters
Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Biden waves to people outside of Amazing Grace coffee shop in Duluth, Minnesota, Sept. 18.

I know Minnesota. I grew up just a few blocks from the heart of the George Floyd protests, in a neighborhood that is filled now with Black Lives Matter signs and murals of Floyd and, here and there, the charred ruins of buildings. As a kid, I spent my summers in what is now Trump country, in northern Minnesota, in a tiny town called Longville that had just 300 people in it — then 250, then 150.

So it didn’t occur to me that I would visit and leave with no better understanding of the race than when I’d started. But that was what happened.

The drive to Trump’s rally in Bemidji on Saturday took me up the same road that my parents and I took north from Minneapolis every summer, through sprawling farm fields and then pine tree forests. It was impossible not to notice the Trump signs everywhere — painted on giant boulders, hand-lettered on old boards, tacked onto hay bales.

As I drove, I didn’t see a single Biden sign, not one, and I found myself wondering what it meant — all the different ways you could interpret the simple fact of all those Trump signs in Minnesota, a state Biden was now supposedly running away with.

Was there a massive enthusiasm gap between Republicans and Democrats? Maybe. But then what about the polls that showed Biden with a wide lead in the state — maybe they were wrong. But then how could you believe in “shy Trump” voters when vocal, unabashed support for Trump was everywhere you looked? Was it just that Biden’s ground game was lagging in the pandemic? Would that matter?

I’d spoken to Jennifer Carnahan, the chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota, at the height of the focus on the state. Carnahan said that even she had been surprised by how close Minnesota was in 2016. Few polls had even shown Trump within the margin of error there.

“People are no longer staying silent about their support and their enthusiasm for the president,” Carnahan told me. “You can feel the excitement. I’ve never seen this level of interest or attention. We do have a chance to flip the state.”

Then I got to Bemidji, a small and not particularly liberal city in the heart of deep-red Trump country. There, at a location chosen so that it wouldn’t provoke confrontations with Trump rallygoers, hundreds of people in masks lined the street, waving Biden–Harris signs. There were more than I’d ever seen in Minneapolis.

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