In search of the political shift in the east metro

Washington County, east of the Twin Cities, got a little attention Tuesday when NPR cited it in its analysis of several suburban areas which are purportedly shifting left.

There are lies, damned lies, and statistics, so caution is advised in trying to prove the existence of the shift, particularly when NPR cited only votes for House races.

Here’s what NPR said about Washington County:

Minneapolis-St. Paul
Washington County, east of St. Paul, cast 53 percent of its House votes for Democrats this year — up from 45 percent in 2016. The county is part of the state’s 2nd Congressional District, where Democrat Angie Craig beat Republican incumbent Jason Lewis.

It’s true that it’s part of the 2nd District, but only a very small part of it is. Most of it lies in the 4th and 6th congressional districts.

Only Cottage Grove, Denmark Township a precinct in Hastings, and three in St. Paul Park are in the 2nd. The bulk of the votes are in the 4th District, and the northern end of the county is in the 6th District

It’s true that Angie Craig, the DFLer, expanded her vote in Washington County from almost 47 percent in 2016, to a little more than 54.1 percent in the latest election.

But it doesn’t show a swing left for two reasons. One: Jason Lewis didn’t lose any support in the county; he actually did better in the latest election, going from 44 percent of the vote in 2016 to nearly 46 percent in 2018.

What NPR didn’t note was that two years ago, there were three candidates on the ballot. This year there were just two. In 2016, Independence Party candidate Paula Overby got 9 percent of the vote in Washington County. With no third-party candidate this year, almost all of that Washington County vote went to Craig.

So at least where the 2nd District is concerned in Washington County, there hasn’t been any discernible shift to the left, which is pretty remarkable. The area that lies in the 2nd has grown by leaps and bounds, but it’s pretty set in its political ways. It’s also worth noting that nearly 2,000 fewer were cast in the 2nd District race in the county this year than 2016.

In evaluating a shift, it’s difficult to use races involving incumbents to prove it and the county’s other two U.S. House members are in some of the safest seats in the country.

This year, DFL Rep. Betty McCollum beat Greg Ryan in Washington County 56 percent to 44 percent. Republican Tom Emmer easily handled Ian Todd 58 percent to 42 percent in the county, which mostly consists of votes from Forest Lake and Hugo.

The bulk of the perceived shift is almost exclusively in McCollum’s district — Woodbury, Stillwater, Oakdale. She barely beat Ryan there in 2016 50.3 percent to 49.6 percent, probably because of Trump’s strong headwinds.

A 6 percentage point swing is significant, and it’s tempting to pin that on Donald Trump not being at the top of the ballot, but almost the same number of people voted in this race in 2018 as in 2016.

That “shift” also showed in Emmer’s part of the county, with his vote total falling about 5 percent.