It’s no secret that events in Minnesota since the 2020 election have been nothing short of tumultuous. The COVID-19 pandemic, the unrest and conviction in the death of George Floyd, economic uncertainties and a summer of drought and fires have shaped the unsettled situation of our state.
Minnesota’s political future seems unclear. The very structure of electoral competition remains to be settled through decennial redistricting, in all probability to be decided by state courts.
Fortunately, three polls of recent months give some definition to present events and contain lessons regarding the state’s future. The surveys come from disparate sources.
Two are late-summer polls. MinnPost’s Aug. 28-31 survey by Change research recruited 1,943 registered voters via targeted Facebook, Instagram and text messages, resulting in a margin of error for results of 2.5 percent. Change tends to work for Democrats and had a B- pollster rating from Nate Silver’s 538 website. Change’s polling history, according to 538, shows a 2.9 percent bias toward Democrats.
A second late-summer poll by Mason-Dixon research for the Star Tribune, KARE 11, MPR News and FRONTLINE questioned 800 registered voters from Sept. 13-15, resulting in a margin of error for results of 3.5 percent. Mason-Dixon has an A- polling rating from 538 with a 0.5 percent pro-GOP bias in their polling history.
A third survey taken from June 2-6 comes from the conservative, Minnesota-based Center of the American Experiment. The poll queried 500 registered voters, resulting in a margin of error for results of 4.38 percent. It was conducted by Meeting Street Insights, a firm with a B/C rating from 538 with a polling history indicating a 0.7 percent bias for Democrats. This survey focused on crime and law enforcement questions.
The top-line trends of the more recent MinnPost and Star Tribune et al. surveys are troubling for Democrats. Gov. Tim Walz’s job approval has dropped into dangerous territory: MinnPost’s survey has his favorable rating at just 44 percent versus 49 percent unfavorable. The Star Tribune survey finds Walz having 49 percent approval and 41 percent disapproval.
President Biden suffers a slightly worse fate in the surveys. The Change survey for MinnPost finds his favorable rating at just 42 percent versus 51 percent unfavorable. The Star Tribune survey locates his job approval at 47 percent with 51 percent disapproving.
Fully 60 percent of respondents in the Change survey termed the state on the “wrong track” and 69 percent of those respondents termed the nation on the “wrong track.”
Though Walz campaigned for governor on the goals of uniting “one Minnesota,” political divisions are deep. The liberal Twin Cities and conservative greater Minnesota diverge greatly in their views of Walz and Biden and on crime and law enforcement issues. In all three surveys greater Minnesota is far more conservative and Republican than are the residents of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
The key to the state’s political future lies in the votes of suburban and independent residents, who attitudinally lie between the conservative outstate and liberal Twin Cities and include many swing voters. What do the surveys suggest about their current leanings?
Independents in the Star Tribune poll give Walz 39 percent job approval and Biden 34 percent job approval. “Pure independent” voters in the Change survey find the state to be on the wrong track by a whopping margin of 81 to 19 percent. Only 31 percent view Walz favorably and a mere 23 percent view Biden favorably.
The MinnPost survey finds suburban voters having views in the middle between the polarized extreme of rural and urban voters. Walz’s positive/negative percentage is -30 among rural respondents, -3 in the suburbs and +24 among urban respondents. Biden’s positive/negative is similarly -34 rural, +6 suburban and +8 urban. Fifty seven percent of suburbanites think the state is on the wrong track, compared with 70 percent in rural areas and 50 percent among urbanites.
The Star Tribune survey, however, further separates Hennepin and Ramsey County respondents from those living in the rest of the metro area. Respondents outside of Hennepin and Ramsey counties have attitudes very close to those of respondents in rural Minnesota. Only 42 percent of “rest of metro” respondents view Walz favorably, far from the 68 percent of those who do so in the two biggest urban counties. Biden’s numbers are again similar – 38 percent favorable in the rest of the metro and 69 percent favorable in the two urban counties.
The Center of the American Experiment’s earlier survey may suggest some reasons for Democrats’ declining prospects in the state. The governor’s response to 2021’s urban unrest received disapproval in their survey. In June, respondents disapproved of Walz’s response to the riots by 55 to 39 percent. Support for his response was at 49 percent in the Twin Cities, 38 percent in the suburbs, only 33 percent among rural respondents and 31 percent among independents.
Further, respondents split evenly on whether they trust Walz to “make our state safe”: 50-49 in favor. The state Legislature fared far worse on that question, with only 36 percent voicing trust in legislators’ safety efforts.
To the extent crime and public safety remain a top agenda item for 2022, Democrats are in electoral trouble.
The one bright spot for Walz, Biden and Democrats is the continuing unpopularity of Donald Trump in Minnesota. Change’s MinnPost survey found the former president with only a 41 percent favorable rating with his favorability rating at -17 percent among the vital suburban voters and -23 percent among “pure independents.” The more prominent a role Trump plays in the 2022 Minnesota election, the better are Democratic prospects.
The surveys suggest three central questions. Will Biden’s and Walz’s lower popularity persist to Election Day 2022? Will crime remain a top public concern among Minnesotans in 2022? Will Donald Trump be a factor in the state’s 2022 elections? This much is clear: Given widespread popular dissatisfaction with state and national trends, there will be no smooth sailing for Minnesota officeholders from now to Election Day 2022.
Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.
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