What does voter turnout in the primary election say?

A sign reads vote
A “Vote” sign rest at the front doors of a polling station in New Ulm, Minn. on Aug. 9.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Participation was relatively high in Tuesday’s primary election. The results confirmed some expectations, like that former state Sen. Scott Jensen will be the Republican candidate for governor. It also cleared up some uncertainty, like that incumbent U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar will be the DFL candidate in the 5th Congressional District.

But what else can the numbers from primary elections, past and present, tell us? We took a look and addressed the questions below. Feel free to send us more, and we’ll see what we can do.

Question: Since Gov. Walz got more primary votes than Jensen, he’ll be re-elected right?

Short answer: Not necessarily.

Longer answer: The party and candidate that received the highest number of votes in the three most recent gubernatorial races did go on to win the general election:

  • 2018: In the highest turnout primary in recent history, more voters participated in the DFL than Republican primary. DFLer Tim Walz went on to win the open governor’s office in November after receiving more primary votes than did Republican Jeff Johnson.

  • 2014: In this low-primary-turnout year Jeff Johnson won a closely contested battle in the Republican primary with a plurality of only 30 percent. Despite the interest in that contest the combined Republican primary votes cast were less than in the DFL primary for governor. Overall, incumbent DFL Gov. Mark Dayton pulled down the most primary votes — and was re-elected in November.

    No budget deal
    Gov. Mark Dayton
    Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News
  • 2010: DFL primary turnout exceeded the Republican turnout. Primary votes for Dayton exceeded those for Republican primary winner Emmer, and Dayton went on to win his first term for governor — although by less than one-half a percentage point.

But in the three previous races the top primary vote-getter did not win the general election:

  • 2006: The DFL field, led by Attorney General Mike Hatch, garnered nearly twice as many primary votes as did the Republican side of the ticket. But incumbent Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty held on to the office with a one percentage point victory in November.

    Gov. Tim Pawlenty
    Gov. Tim Pawlenty
    Tim Pugmire | MPR News
  • 2002: DFLers out-primaried Republicans. Pawlenty and DFL state Sen. Roger Moe each won their respective primaries with 89 percent of the vote. But Pawlenty easily won the open governor’s seat in the general election.

  • 1998: Despite receiving less than three percent of the total votes cast in the primary, Jesse Ventura went on to “shock the world” by winning Minnesota’s 1998 election for governor as neither a Republican nor a Democrat, but as the Reform Party candidate.

Republican primary election turnout was higher than the DFL primary turnout in 1994, when incumbent Republican Arne Carlson garnered the most votes in both the primary and the general election.

So, primaries can be harbingers. But turnout in the general election is dramatically higher. For example, even in 2018, the highest turnout recent primary, nearly three times as many Minnesotans voted for governor in the general election than voted in the primary — 2.6 million in November compared to just over 900,000 in August.

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Jesse Ventura
Gov. Jesse Ventura.
Jim Mone | AP

And campaigns, events and personalities can and do shape the outcome in the three months between the Minnesota’s primary and the general election.

Question: Primary election turnout was lower than it was in the last midterm primary. Was that true everywhere?

Short answer: No.

Longer answer: As the next three maps show, the patterns of turnout rates were somewhat similar in 2018 and 2022, with high voter participation in the arrowhead and lower rates in central Minnesota both years. Congrats to Itasca, Brown, Lake and especially Cook counties for making it into the top 10 both years.

The third map shows that voter participation rates were relatively stable between the two mid-term primaries, with an estimated change of five percentage points or less for 39 counties. Turnout fell in 34 counties. But turnout went up in 13 counties, including six in the 1st Congressional District.

Question: While voters everywhere could weigh in on statewide races, only some congressional districts had contested primaries. Do contested congressional seats lead to higher turnout?

Short answer: Yes

Longer answer: Voter turnout was below 20 percent in three districts that lacked contested congressional races—districts 2, 3, and 6. Turnout was above 20 percent in the other districts, and approached 30 percent in Congressional District 1, which had a simultaneous special election, and District 5 where Rep. Ilhan Omar was facing a high-profile challenge from fellow DFLer Don Samuels.

Question: Congressional district boundaries were changed this year in part to even out the number of people in each. So, did the number of registered voters actually even out?

Short answer: Yes.

Longer answer: Tuesday’s primary was the first election relying on re-drawn political maps following the 2020 census. One of the primary purposes of the decennial census is to re-balance political districts to account for changes in population.

Redistricting does appear to have balanced out Minnesota’s Congressional Districts. In 2020, the number of registered voters on primary day ranged from a low of 386,000 in largely rural District 7, along the state’s western boundary, to a high of over 472,000 in suburban District 3 — a difference of over 86,000 voters.

After redistricting that range shrunk by half to just over 43,000. The low is now just below 428,000 registered in largely urban districts 4 and 5, and districts 3 and 8 have the highest number of voters at about 471,000.

Whether redistricting results in being more or less representative of the electorate’s party affiliations is an entirely different question, but several of Minnesota’s congressional districts have been among nation’s the most competitive in recent years.

Question: Republican Brad Finstad won the special election in Congressional District 1. Does his DFL challenger Jeff Ettinger have a chance in their upcoming rematch in November?

Short answer: Possibly.

Longer answer: Republican Brad Finstad won the special election in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District to finish out the last few months of the late Rep. Jim Hagedorn’s term. His DFL challenger Jeff Ettinger is claiming he is still well positioned to win in the upcoming general election in November, in part because he out-performed President Joe Biden’s margins in the 2020 presidential election.

This fact-checks as true. Ettinger got 46.8 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s special election, whereas Biden won 43.8 percent of the vote in the district back in 2020. By this same comparison Finstad’s 50.7 percent under-performed former President Trump’s 53.9 percent in 2020.

Finstad did better than Trump in Nobles, Watonwon and especially Rice counties, but worse in the big population center of Olmsted as well as Mower and others. Ettinger’s performance versus Biden’s is the mirror opposite.

The district boundaries will change a little for the upcoming general election. The new boundaries were, of course, in effect for the primary election that ran simultaneously with the special election. Interestingly, Ettinger got more votes than Finstad in the primary, 51,391 votes compared to 48,252.

In the primary, however, the two were not competing against each other, but rather the challengers within their own parties. Finstad’s challenger Jeremy Munson garnered far more votes on the Republican side than did Ettinger’s challengers in the DFL primary. Together Republicans received 52.8 percent of primary votes compared to 46.4 percent for DFLers. By that measure things do not look any better in the new boundaries versus the old boundaries for Ettinger.

Another way to look at it: To win the district a candidate will have to earn somewhere around 172,000 votes — somewhere around half of the 80 percent or so of the district’s registered voters who turn out in the general election.

By that measure, Ettinger does indeed have a chance — both he and now incumbent U.S. Rep. Finstad have the next three months to try and find approximately 120,000 more voters to cast a ballot for them in the general election above and beyond those who voted for them on Tuesday.

APM Research Lab will continue to track the race for Congressional District 1, as well as all other districts and statewide races, through the election. See Minnesota Poll Watch 2022 for a roundup of fundraising comparisons, election forecasts, and the latest polling.

What questions do you have about 2022 elections in Minnesota?