Minnesota Seemed Ripe for a Trump Breakout. It Has Not Arrived.

DULUTH, Minn. — For a campaign event featuring Donald Trump Jr., the brash-talking, liberal-dunking namesake of the president, it was all rather mundane.

There was no large rally with thronging crowds, but a few hundred seats at a community center, each socially distanced. The signature Trump campaign playlist, usually blared at a volume that makes conversation impossible, was replaced by a selection of library-level soft rock.

“I like the crowds a little bit more packed and a little tighter, but we have to play by different rules, and that’s OK,” he told supporters.

It was not supposed to be this way. If any state is positioned to go from blue to red in 2020, to embrace the fullness of Trumpology and provide the president some much-needed Electoral College insurance, it is Minnesota.

The state’s northern and eastern regions have grown more conservative over the years, and Republicans won two House seats in the state during the 2018 midterm elections — a rare bright spot during an election characterized by an anti-Trump wave. Going into 2020, conservatives crowed that the issues that defined the state’s politics were straight from Mr. Trump’s playbook: in particular, a robust refugee relocation program that has inspired a white backlash in certain places outside the Twin Cities.

This year, after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, a wave of destruction gripped the city — exactly the type of urban unrest that Mr. Trump uses to stoke white fear.

“Try wearing a MAGA hat in Portland, Chicago, New York City, Kenosha, Minneapolis,” the younger Mr. Trump said to the crowd.

“They’ll kill you!” an audience member shouted out.

“There’s a reason we’re doing so well here,” the president’s son went on. “People have woken up. They’re sick of being lied to. And they’re sick of people who don’t deserve it being given the benefit of the doubt.”

At this moment, however, most evidence indicates that Mr. Trump is in a worse position in 2020 than where he finished in 2016. New polling from The New York Times and Siena College shows that Mr. Biden leads Mr. Trump by nine percentage points in the state, more than five times the small margin Hillary Clinton won the state by four years ago. And while Mr. Trump does enjoy the firm backing of conservatives in rural areas who support his law-and-order message, the same theme has not resonated with the larger coalition he would need to overtake the Democrats.

Mr. Biden’s advantage is driven by an erosion of Republican support for Mr. Trump in the state’s metropolitan areas, continuing the trend of suburban voters’ fleeing a president in crisis. In interviews, several of the voters reached for the Times poll, particularly those in suburban and rural regions that are bellwethers for the state, described rejecting Mr. Trump’s pitch about law and order and focusing on themes Mr. Biden has tried to stress: decency, experience, and Mr. Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Victoria Delgrande, an 85-year-old in St. Louis County in northern Minnesota, said she had voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 but deeply regretted that decision. Ms. Delgrande said she would vote for Mr. Biden in November.

“I was kind of hesitant to vote for him to begin with, but I thought he would do good for the country,” she said. “He has not. He has taken us backward. Oh, my God — I don’t even like talking about that man. Because he’s that bad.”

Sarah Cox, a 41-year-old social worker who lives in suburban Little Canada, Minn., said she thought that most people in the Twin Cities area had seen through Mr. Trump’s ability to stoke fear.

“There were a lot of people who voted for Trump in the first election who didn’t want a politician,” Ms. Cox said. “With Joe Biden, I think that he has that compassionate sincere desire to help his nation.

“He knows if he goes too far left he’ll lose people,” she added of the Democratic nominee. “He’s a moderate, and that’ll help him grab trust from both parties.”

In many ways, Minnesota Republicans often sound as if they’re describing a state entirely different from the one that has elected a mix of liberal, moderate and conservative pragmatists and reformers for decades. In the Republican version, violence and crime in major cities has ground society to a halt, and the November election will be a backlash to liberal lawlessness.

In Minnesota’s most competitive congressional district, the 7th, which covers the western portion of the state, Republicans have sought to link Democrats who have a more moderate reputation to the unrest in Minneapolis and to the city’s most controversial leaders.

The 7th district’s Republican nominee, Michelle Fischbach, premiered an advertisement on Sept. 11 that seeks to tie the veteran Democratic incumbent, Representative Collin Peterson, to Representative Ilhan Omar, the Somali-born first-term progressive whose district is in Minneapolis.

This week, in a message accidentally shared with Democratic colleagues and first reported by local media, a Republican leader of the State Legislature warned his caucus that “COVID issues are not our winning message, PUBLIC SAFETY is our ticket to the majority.”

Top Trump surrogates such as the president’s son, his daughter-in-law and the conservative commentator Charlie Kirk have all visited the state or are scheduled to visit in the coming weeks. Several have used the campaign’s argument that Mr. Biden is not the moderate many know him as but a Trojan horse for far-left activists who will control his administration.

Florian Chmielewski, a 93-year-old polka musician who has gone from caucusing with Democrats as a member of the Minnesota State Senate to a full-blown supporter of Mr. Trump’s, said he believed Republicans could ride votes from rural areas to victory in November. He attended the speech by the president’s son in Duluth.

“Minneapolis has been ruined,” Mr. Chmielewski said. “And in the last few years, Democrats have moved to socialism.”

“He’s going to be big up here in the North and in the Iron Range,” he said, referring to the iron-rich districts of the northeastern portions of the state.

Credit…Ben Brewer for The New York Times

But polling from The Times and Siena College indicates that Mr. Trump’s edge with rural voters will not be enough to win statewide. Among suburban voters, Mr. Biden was the preferred candidate by 20 points, and suburban voters roundly said that handling of the coronavirus pandemic — not law and order — was their top priority. That, combined with the edge Democratic candidates have in the state’s population centers, was enough to surpass Mrs. Clinton’s performance from 2016.

By 49 percent to 46 percent, voters said they preferred Mr. Biden to Mr. Trump on handling of violent crime, and Mr. Biden led by 15 points on that issue in the Minnesota suburbs. Mr. Biden enjoys a large advantage when voters are asked who is best suited to unify the country, one of the themes of his campaign. On that front, Mr. Biden holds a 17-point edge, with voters preferring him over Mr. Trump by a margin of 55 percent to 38 percent.

In a strategy memo from Mr. Biden’s campaign obtained by The Times, Mr. Biden’s advisers praised coordinated efforts with state Democrats, an area where Mrs. Clinton’s campaign struggled in 2016. The memo stated that volunteers had reached more than 1.5 million Minnesota voters by phone and had completed nearly 5,000 volunteer shifts. Of particular note were state fund-raising totals, which showed that Democrats had raised more than twice what the Minnesota G.O.P. had from the start of the year through the latest fund-raising disclosure deadline.

Valery Atanga lives in Rosemont, outside the Twin Cities, and said he planned to vote for Mr. Biden as a protest against Mr. Trump. Mr. Atanga said that Mr. Trump had worsened the racial divide in America at a time when he should have sought to unify the country.

“He says he’s the law-and-order guy, but I don’t think he is,” Mr. Atanga said. “It’s all about his ego. If he had a different tone, even with the protests, I think it would’ve gone different. The violence was because of him.”

Mr. Atanga, who is 42, said he believed that one reason Mr. Biden was performing better than Mrs. Clinton had to do with Mr. Biden’s perceived authenticity. He also mentioned sexism.

“Biden is a less controversial figure,” he said, adding of Mrs. Clinton: “Being a woman, even if people didn’t mention it outrightly, that mattered. But Biden has appealed to the average American, and you can relate with him. I don’t think the average American related to Hillary. She didn’t come across as real. Not at all.”

Credit…Nicole Neri/Reuters

Mr. Biden’s campaign announced this week that the candidate would visit Minnesota in the coming days, a sign that maintaining an edge in the Midwest remained one of the campaign’s top priorities even with a reduced travel schedule. Last week, Jill Biden, the candidate’s wife, hosted in-person events on her Back to School Tour, during which she was joined by several Democratic state leaders, educators and parents. In contrast to Republicans, her message, targeted to the suburbs, made no mention of law and order. Instead, she described a Minnesota hamstrung by the coronavirus and an ill-prepared presidential administration.

“If the doctors are telling us we need to shut down, we need to shut down,” Dr. Biden said in Prior Lake, a suburb about 30 minutes south of the Twin Cities. “There’s nothing more precious than America’s children, and we should keep them all safe.”

She refused to comment on the younger Mr. Trump’s appearance in Duluth, though he made no such attempts at deference. In a speech lasting more than 30 minutes, he impugned the former vice president’s mental fitness (“Is he going to be awake for the next Benghazi?”), made little mention of the pandemic (“We’re all fed up with the quarantine nonsense”) and attempted a joke about how Bill Clinton would rather kill himself than be stuck at home with Mrs. Clinton.

Ms. Delgrande, the voter from northern Minnesota who backed Mr. Trump in 2016, said that those were the types of messages that once motivated her but no longer had the same appeal.

“I don’t think Biden is pure or this knight in shining armor,” she said. “I kind of think he’s too old to be running. But I’d vote for anyone above Trump. He lied too much with this virus. He never told us! I would vote for a dogcatcher first. I have no choice.”

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