Minnesotans love to vote. So much so, that for the better part of the last decade, Minnesota has topped all 49 of its fellow states in voter turnout.
In 2020, nearly 80% of all eligible voters in Minnesota made their voice heard, a modern-day American record. The 2022 election is off to strong start as well, with 172,000 Minnesotans already casting a ballot two weeks out from Election Day.
But as those large hordes of Minnesotans enter the voting booth … are they truly in charge of their own destiny? Or are they letting features of the national environment make up their minds for them? That’s what a group of University of St. Thomas researchers are on a mission to find out.
Political science professor Timothy Lynch has been studying the impact of national politics on state and local races for years. And as the years go by, he believes the connection between the two is growing ever stronger.
“As political party has become more important to voters, it's also more closely linked to elections, not just at the federal level, but at the state level, including state legislative races,” Lynch said.
As the 2022 race plays out this fall, Lynch and a team of student researchers are gathering as much data as they can, arming themselves with knowledge as they prepare to ask some big questions once the Election Day dust has settled.
“Whenever we think about a midterm election, we start off with the idea that the party that has the White House is probably going to face some losses in that upcoming election,” Lynch said. “This year there are a whole host of headwinds for Democratic candidates nationally and that presents significant challenges for Democrats in Minnesota as well.”
Student researchers on a mission
To truly examine that relationship, there’s a lot of data to be found. And that’s where political science majors Elyse Zeswitz ’23 and Joey Brueggemeier ’24 are playing a starring role.
“Most Americans get that national glam that comes with presidential or congressional elections like we see during midterms and presidential years,” Brueggemeier said. “But there’s a more in-depth element that we want to explore, which is that connection between how state politics might actually be influenced by national politics.”
Both of these budding researchers admit it’s not exactly a straightforward process.
“It’s like a treasure hunt trying to find information,” Zeswitz said. “You feel very accomplished when you do, but the process of finding it can be frustrating, especially for those candidates who maybe haven’t created as big of a platform or haven’t done many interviews.”
There are seemingly endless spreadsheets to fill as the team searches for stats on hundreds of candidates running for the Minnesota Legislature. Beyond political affiliation, the team is also gathering data on what more broadly defines each of those candidates, things like incumbency, gender, ethnicity, and political platform.
“With this rich data set, we can explore more factors surrounding candidates that might be influencing the outcomes of these elections," Lynch said.
Essentially, the team wants to know what local factors are still able to make an impact on voters, even as national influence gains a stronger foothold.
“Many of the trends we’ve seen nationally have kind of lagged in Minnesota to some degree,” Lynch said. “The kind of regional realignment that we’ve seen with the Republicans and Democrats nationally have not always been clearly manifested in Minnesota, however they have been trending this direction in recent years."
Gaining experience through real-world data
Minnesota’s unique political landscape is creating an extra layer of mystery for Lynch’s student researchers to dig into.
“Typically what you’d see is incumbents have the advantage, but I think Minnesota is kind of unique that there’s a lot at play beyond the traditional Democratic mindset or typical Republican mindset,” Zeswitz said. “Minnesota has a lot of third parties that play a role in the issues.”
For both students, it is a jigsaw puzzle that will someday prepare them for work long after they’ve left the University of St. Thomas.
“You get your hands and your feet wet in the field that you want to go into and realize the work might be harder than you think it is,” Brueggemeier said. “In certain senses it can be a wake-up call and in another sense it can be really, really rewarding and make you realize this is actually what you want to do.”
Once Election Day is behind us and the team has processed the results, Lynch plans to submit their work to several political conferences. It’s a report that could serve as a warning measuring just how strong national influences have become in local politics.
“Elections are fundamentally instrumental. They are about getting people in positions where they have some sort of authority to make public policy … it’s not just for sport, right?” Lynch said. “And so, if you have elections for state offices that are being driven by national issues, there can be a real disconnect for voters.”