Very few political analysts would consider Minnesota in play this cycle.  After all, the state has not gone for a GOP Presidential candidate since Nixon in 1972.  But recent events and new polling data shows Minnesota could be as close as WI and OH and perhaps affect the presidential race as much as its Midwestern counterparts.

Minnesota, like much of the Midwest, is strongly white.  Its rural population is more moderate like Wisconsin’s and more liberal like Ohio’s or Michigan’s.  GOP Presidential candidates since Reagan have courted the states voters and been turned down time and time again.  In 2008 Barack Obama perhaps under performed in the state, winning it by a mere 11 points compared to much larger victories in neighboring Wisconsin and Michigan.  It does bear in mind neither the McCain or Obama camp paid much attention to the state in 2008.

In 2010 the state elected a solidly GOP legislature while narrowly electing a Democratic Governor in a three-way race that was not called until after election day.  Politics in the state have been deeply unsettled since 2011 with the state legislature and executive constantly at odds.  This culminated in a short government shutdown before both the legislature and governor blinked and compromised.

While many pundits talk about the fact that Minnesota continues to be Democratic they may be missing a subtle underlying shift that is occurring.  Unlike WI, OH and MI, that have performed true to form as either Democratic leaning or swing, Minnesota has been trending towards the GOP since 2000.

Consider in 1992 that Bush won 37% of national vote and 32% in Minnesota.  In 1996 Dole got 41% of the national vote and 35% in Minnesota.  But in 2000 Bush won 48% of the national vote and 45.5% in Minnesota (a 3.5% shift towards the GOP from 96).  In 2004 Bush won over 50% of the popular vote nationwide and 48% in Minnesota.  Even in 2008 when John McCain was garnering 46% of the vote nationwide he won 44% in Minnesota.  The numbers since 2000 thus suggest that Minnesota is moving, ever so slightly over time, to the GOP’s camp.

Let us also not forget 2010.  As mentioned above the GOP took control of the state legislature and narrowly lost the governor’s mansion.  But the GOP also took control of a Congressional District that leans Democratic and gave two other Democratic Congressmen a run for their money.

This cycle both the Obama and Romney campaigns seem to have largely taken the state for granted.  Romney has not visited the state once, not even during the primaries.  Obama visited it once in 2011 (Biden has been there twice in 2012).  A month ago Minnesota definitely seemed off the map as the President was expanding his lead nationally and in key swing states such as Ohio, Wisconsin, Colorado, Florida and New Hampshire.  But since the debates there has been a marked shift in the trajectory of the presidential race.

Romney seems to have locked up Florida.  In fact a new Mason Dixon poll shows Romney winning the swing I-4 region of the state (this virtually ensures a GOP victory in the state).  Polling in Colorado and Virginia show a tight race but if partisan turnout is roughly even (as is expected by many) Romney appears to have the edge in both.  Ohio and Wisconsin are extremely tight, as is Iowa.  Even Pennsylvania and Michigan, which Obama carried by double-digits in 2008, are seeing tightening polls.

All this suggests Minnesota should be in play at this point in time, or at least see tightening polls.  And it seems both have occurred.  Last week the Obama campaign, apparently in response to internal poll numbers, decided to use precious resources to buy ad time in the state.  In the meantime the Romney camp and allied Super PACs have also bought up ad time in the state.

Yesterday, the Star Tribune did a poll among likely voters and found the President leading narrowly 48%-45.  This is within the poll’s margin of error and seems to validate the Obama campaign’s worries about the state.  Young voters favor the President while the older back Romney.  Men back Romney by 16% and women Obama by 14%.  Independents in the survey surprisingly back the President 43%-37%.  The sample of the survey is solid with a D+5 sample, close to the D+4 turnout Democrats enjoyed in 2008.

Perhaps most telling about why Minnesota is in play, at least in the Star Tribune survey, are two facts.  First, in the survey Romney leads on who is better to create jobs/manage the economy 48%-44%.  Second, Romney is over performing in the metro suburbs, leading 53%-41%.  Obama commands a large lead in the metro Twin cities and the two are tied in the rest of the state.  For Romney to win MN he needs to keep exceeding expectations in the suburbs and pull off a victory among the rest of the state.

In a regional sense the fact Minnesota is in play suggests the Obama camp is in trouble.  If Romney is performing this well in the liberal/moderate MN suburbs what does that say about the more conservative suburbs in SW Wisconsin and around Cincinnati?  Or how about the moderate suburbs in Iowa, Michigan and PA for that matter?  Polls show the President still narrowly leading in many of these Midwestern battlegrounds but the turnout ratio in those polls appears suspect.  If so, Minnesota, and the rest, or at least some of the Midwest, could lead the way for Romney to the White House.

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