Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of stories MinnPost plans this week about the Embold Research poll.
The race for governor of Minnesota remains close, but incumbent Tim Walz has increased a narrow lead over challenger Scott Jensen in the latest MinnPost/Embold Research poll.
The DFLer was preferred by 47% of those polled while Jensen was preferred by 42%. The four other candidates on the ballot shared 5% of the support; 5% remained undecided and 1% said they would not vote.
The poll of 1,585 voters across Minnesota between Oct. 10 and Oct. 14 has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points, putting Walz’s advantage just within that window. When a similar sampling was asked in June, Walz and Jensen were virtually tied with 42% supporting Walz and 40% supporting Jensen.
The DFL nominee has a large lead among women voters, leading 55% to 33%. Among men, Jensen leads 52% to 39%. Walz has a slight numerical lead in all age groups but his largest advantage is among young voters – those between age 18 and 34 – where he has 43% to 32% lead. Crosstabs can be found here.
Geography is a great divider in the poll results, some of it expected. Walz has a 37-point lead in the two Twin Cities while Jensen has a 19-point lead in the seven-county metro area outside the two largest cities and leads by 14 points in Greater Minnesota. Compared to the June poll, Walz’s advantage has grown in the cities and declined in the suburbs. Because the sample size is smaller than the overall polled population, the margins of error increase in size for subregions of the state. The margin of error for this poll is plus or minus 4 percentage points in the cities, plus or minus 7 percentage points in the metro area excluding Minneapolis and St. Paul and plus or minus 4 percentage points in Greater Minnesota.
A reelection campaign begins as a referendum of sorts on the job done by the incumbent who usually does not suffer from a lack of familiarity with voters. Only 1% of surveyed voters said they had not heard of Walz, the former U.S. congressman from Mankato. That doesn’t always transfer to favorability.
Of those polled, Walz receives very favorable or somewhat favorable grades from 46%, while 48% view him unfavorably. But 40% of respondents who viewed him as unfavorable put him in the most-negative “very unfavorable” category.
“It is not unusual, especially in a state like Minnesota where you have a pretty polarized electorate,” pollster Ben Greenfield said of the depth of feelings. Walz “is very polarized in terms of people’s political orientations. I’m sure if we polled in (Gov. Tony) Evers in Wisconsin we would see pretty much the same thing.”
The good news for Jensen is that since the MinnPost/Embold Research poll in June, Jensen has become more familiar to voters – both because of his own campaign and the negative ads that have run against him by allies of Walz and the DFL. In June, 23% of voters surveyed had a favorable view of the former state senator and 19% had an unfavorable view. But at that time, 44% said they had not heard of the candidate who had recently won the endorsement of the state GOP.
Now, however, while Jensen is known by all but 9% of those who took part in the poll, his ratio of favorable-to-unfavorable responses has reversed. Now, 37% said they thought very favorably or somewhat favorably, while 44% said they were somewhat unfavorable or very unfavorable toward him.
As a reference point, the voters who took part in the poll gave lower numbers to President Joe Biden (41% favorable/51% unfavorable) and former President Donald Trump (35% to 57%).
Incumbents are more likely to be affected by a sense among voters about the future. When asked whether they thought Minnesota was on the right track or going in the wrong direction, 46% said “right direction” and 54% said “wrong track,” a net negative of 8 points. In June, 59% said “wrong track.”
The same question, but asked about the nation as a whole rather than Minnesota only, showed that only 28% said “right direction” and 72% said “wrong track,” a net negative of 44 points.
Generally, pluralities feeling a state or nation is going in the wrong direction can predict a change election where incumbents don’t do well. But a two-point difference is less significant a predictor. Charlie Cook of the national Cook Political Report recently noted that more voters said “wrong direction” in each presidential election between 1980 and 2016, but the depth of their negativity made a difference. Of the five elections between 1980 and 2016 when a party lost the White House, the average net negativity number – the difference between those saying right direction and wrong track – was 46%. In the years a party maintained control, the average net negative number was 8%.
Greenfield said there is a unique environment around this question now. Biden draws unfavorable ratings among voters who still say they will vote for him or other Democrats. When Trump was president, his supporters rarely viewed him unfavorably.
The poll also asked voters to rate Walz’s job performance in office, a term that began with a strong economy and a state budget surplus but then went through a global pandemic, the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the protests, riots and emotional jury trials that resulted. This is a different question than the question about whether they view some favorably or unfavorably.
“Typically the favorability number is more about someone’s personal feelings about the candidate, whereas approval is solely about the job that they are doing,” Greenfield said.
Approval numbers are generally higher than favorability numbers, he said. In Walz’s case the differences are fairly small.
Overall, 50% approve and 50% disapprove of the incumbent’s job as governor. On four individual areas, his report card is mixed. On jobs, a question meant to gauge his work on the economy, 53% of respondents approve of his work and 47% disapprove; on the pandemic, 51% approve and 49% disapprove; on crime, 42% approve and 58% disapprove and on education, 5o% approve and 50% disapprove.
The numbers all show slight improvement over the June poll results.
The number of undecided voters in the election for governor – 6% – is relatively low with three weeks to go to Election Day. But the poll suggests there is more opportunity among those voters for Jensen than for Walz. Among those voters only, 33% report they approve of the incumbent’s job performance while 67% disapprove.
MinnPost will write more extensively on how polled voters look at issues – both which issues they think are important this year and how they view them. But the poll does reveal which issues are driving support for Walz and which for Jensen.
Among voters who say they are supporting Walz, the top issue was abortion – specifically the June U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned a finding that abortion was a fundamental right that couldn’t be unduly limited by states. Following abortion was the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, climate change and then inflation.
For Jensen voters, inflation is by far the top issue, followed by immigration, crime, taxes and critical race theory.
There is some suggestion that voters who say that abortion is a top issue include both pro-abortion-rights voters and opponents of abortion. The MinnPost/Embold Research poll does not find support for that. Of those who listed abortion as one of their four top issues – and abortion was the second-most-cited issue among those polled – 76% said they voted for Biden in 2020 and 6% said they voted for Donald Trump.
Another indicator that abortion is an issue among abortion rights supports is that of those who named it as a top issue, 79% had reported they affiliated with the Democrats, 7% said they were Republicans and 33% said they were independents.
“That is consistent with what we’ve seen in other polls,” Greenfield said. “When we gave them an open-ended prompt, the vast majority – if not all – of the people who mentioned abortion are Democratic leaners who are voting for Walz.” The lack of Republican voters who cite abortion as a top issue is also consistent with other polls, he said.
“There really is not any base of Republican voters who are motivated by the victory in the Dobbs decision,” Greenfield said. “It’s really not top of mind for them. They are voting on inflation, immigration, crime, things like that.”
As the challenger, Jensen has less of a record to grade, and the MinnPost/Embold Research poll did not ask voters to assess his performance on specific areas as it did with Walz.
The poll was conducted from Oct. 10 to Oct. 14, and respondents included 1,585 likely general election voters. The poll was conducted by Embold Research, the nonpartisan arm of Change Research. The pollsters recruit respondents via targeted ads on websites and social media platforms. Change Research has a B- pollster rating from FiveThirtyEight.
Embold Research uses a “modeled” margin of error, which it says accounts for the effects of weighting the poll (or making adjustments to better reflect the state’s demographics). The results were weighted on age, gender, race/ethnicity, region, and 2020 presidential vote.
Associate editor Greta Kaul contributed to this report.