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Five takeaways from the NYT/Siena polls of Minnesota’s Third and Eighth Congressional Districts

Among them: Rep. Erik Paulsen appears to be in trouble in CD3. Meanwhile, Democrats may have more breathing room than expected up in CD8.

Dean Phillips
In CD3, the poll gave a big, nine-point advantage to Democratic candidate Dean Phillips, who is challenging six-term GOP incumbent Erik Paulsen.
MinnPost file photo by Briana Bierschbach

A fresh round of polls conducted by the New York Times and Siena College is offering the first clear glimpse into two of Minnesota’s highest-profile U.S. House races: the contests in the suburban 3rd District and in northeast Minnesota’s 8th District.

In CD3, the poll gave a big, nine-point advantage to Democratic candidate Dean Phillips, who is challenging six-term GOP incumbent Erik Paulsen. In CD8, an open-seat race, the poll found Democrat Joe Radinovich with a one-point lead over Republican Pete Stauber.

The NYT/Siena polls were carried out and completed over the weekend, and they featured an innovative twist: The results were posted live, with poll-watchers able to see who preferred Democrats or Republicans in real time. By the time the dust settled, the pollsters had called some 18,675 people in CD8 and actually spoke to 504 of them; in CD3, they contacted 21,046 and reached 500.

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Both of these districts are top priorities for national Democrats and Republicans as they fight for control of the House, where Republicans hold a narrow majority. With less than two months to go before voters head to the polls, the NYT’s polling experiment has served up plenty of data morsels to chew on — here’s a look at a few of them.

1. Republicans should be worried in the 3rd …

If alarm bells were ringing for Paulsen and his Republican allies in the 3rd before, they should be close to ear-splitting in the wake of the NYT’s new poll.

The incumbent has easily skated to re-election since first winning this traditionally Republican-leaning west metro seat in 2008, in elections both good and bad for Republicans. In 2018, Paulsen faces his strongest challenge yet from Phillips, the wealthy member of the Minnesota distilling business family. Over the past year, Paulsen has routinely appeared on lists of the two-dozen or so most vulnerable GOP incumbents.

What the NYT/Siena poll shows is a commanding advantage for Phillips: 51 percent of CD3 voters prefer him, over 42 percent for Paulsen — a lead that matches the poll’s nine-point margin of error. (Only 7 percent of voters are undecided.) Of the seven battleground races around the country that the NYT has live-polled so far, Phillips has the biggest lead of any candidate, and he’s the only one to crack 50 percent.

One of the poll’s coolest features is that it offers up different turnout scenarios — projecting what might happen, for example, if the voters who showed up in 2016 showed up in 2018, or if all eligible voters came out to vote. In CD3, each of the seven turnout models gave Phillips a lead: If the people who voted in 2014, a good year for Republicans in which Paulsen won by 25, came out in 2018, Phillips leads by five points. If only the people the poll pegged as certain to vote showed up, Phillips leads by 15.

The poll’s survey of favorability ratings for each candidate tells an interesting story, too: Paulsen has a favorability rating of 43 percent, which easily beats Phillips’ 32 percent rating. But 41 percent of CD3 voters polled had an unfavorable view of Paulsen, compared to 17 percent for Phillips.

The breakdown makes sense for a race in which a well-known incumbent is squaring off against a first-time challenger. The silver lining here for Paulsen, and his well-funded GOP allies, is that there’s a big chunk of CD3 voters who appear to be uncertain about how they feel about Phillips. (That should be grist for plenty of negative ads.) At the same time, the poll finds that group of undecided voters is small — too small for Paulsen to surpass Phillips, even if he wins over all of them.

2. … and Democrats should be less worried in the 8th

If the NYT poll indicates Democrats are in a good spot to compete in the 3rd — a district they’ll need to flip to have a strong chance of winning control of the House — it also indicates they’re in fine shape in the 8th, which many national Republicans believe is their best chance to flip a seat on the entire midterm map.

CD8 covers a swath of Minnesota that runs from Duluth and the Iron Range to the Brainerd Lakes area and the northern exurbs of the metro area. It’s long been a Democratic stronghold, but the blue-collar district is trending red and is home to many white, working-class voters who fueled a drastic swing from Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016.

The GOP’s man is St. Louis County commissioner and former hockey player Pete Stauber, who has already benefited from visits from Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. That he is trailing his opponent, former state Rep. Joe Radinovich by one point — 43 percent to 44 percent — is fairly surprising, given the high level of GOP confidence and investment here and Trump’s strong performance in 2016. (As in CD3, the margin of error for the poll was nine points.)

But this is still an open-seat race featuring two relatively little-known candidates, and the poll shored up that each of them still has plenty of work to do: 13 percent of those polled were undecided over whom they’d vote for. Beyond that, 51 percent of those polled didn’t know enough about Radinovich to give him a favorable or unfavorable rating, and 45 percent didn’t know enough about Stauber to do the same.

Per the poll, Radinovich has a favorability rating of 30 percent, which is close to Stauber’s 28 percent rating; however, 27 percent had an unfavorable opinion of the Republican, versus 18 percent for Radinovich.

The turnout models show some fluidity, too: If the 2016 electorate — which strongly favored Trump — shows up, Stauber is ahead by two points. If only the people who are certain to vote show up, Radinovich leads by four.

We already knew CD8 would be a hard-fought race, but the poll indicates the next two months could be more competitive than anticipated. That’s good news for CD8 Democrats, who are looking to shore up Radinovich in the face of intense GOP interest in the race, and private chatter from some Democrats that this district is falling out of their grasp. (By Monday morning, Radinovich’s campaign had already sent out an email blast touting the poll, proclaiming that CD8 voters preferred him.)

3. Trump is unpopular everywhere, even in CD8

CD3 and CD8 are something like polar opposites in Minnesota: one is a suburban seat that is the state’s most affluent and well-educated district, and the other is a largely rural seat that is perhaps the state’s most economically challenged. One is a longtime GOP district, home to big businesses and business-friendly Republicans, that is swinging toward Democrats; the other is a populist DFL stronghold, where organized labor’s roots run deep, that is growing redder.

Those contrasts probably explain why the NYT decided to poll them together. But there are some commonalities between the two districts: In both, more people disapprove than approve of President Trump, and more prefer Democrats in control of Congress to check him.

In CD3, Trump is deep underwater: Just 33 percent approve of his performance, while 62 percent disapprove. (Relatedly: Phillips’ nine-point advantage over Paulsen in the NYT poll matches Hillary Clinton’s margin over Trump in CD3 in 2016.) In CD8, which voted for Trump by 15 points two years ago, 47 percent approve of Trump, while 48 percent disapprove.

In CD3, 56 percent of those polled hope Democrats will take control of the House next year, compared to 39 percent hoping for GOP control. It’s much narrower in CD8, with 47 percent preferring Democratic control and 46 percent preferring GOP control.

But the extent to which the president influences each race is likely to vary: Paulsen, as a longtime incumbent, looks to be Phillips’ focus in CD3, and the race there is poised to be a referendum on the Republican’s record. In the open-seat 8th, attitudes about the president could be more important in shaping the outcome. Northern Minnesota political blogger Aaron Brown has been saying that Stauber’s total on election night will equal Trump’s approval rating. If the NYT poll’s results hold, that could be enough for him to win, especially given the presence of a third-party candidate on the ballot, Ray “Skip” Sandman. However, in 2016 and 2014, incumbent Rep. Rick Nolan won with 50 and 48.5 percent of the vote, respectively.

4. Gender gaps persist

Beyond the top-line numbers, the poll also explored the attitudes of different groups in each district. One thing that jumped out is the significant gender gap in party preference, and it’s a dynamic that could become a defining factor in the 2018 midterms.

In CD3, the gap between men and women’s preferences was stark: Among women, Phillips was ahead by a 25-point margin: 58 percent preferred him, versus 33 percent for Paulsen. (Nine percent were undecided.) Paulsen had a nine-point advantage among men, with 52 percent in favor of him and 43 percent favoring Phillips; 5 percent of men were undecided.

In CD8, those gender differences were apparent, but narrower: Among women, Radinovich was ahead by 12 points, 49 percent to 37 percent, with 15 percent of them undecided. Stauber had a nine-point advantage among men, with 49 percent favoring him to Radinovich’s 40 percent; 11 percent were undecided.

In both districts, women made up a majority of likely voters — 53 percent in CD3 and 51 percent in CD8. If women are galvanized to vote in 2018, as past polling has strongly suggested, then that could be a boost for Democrats.

5. Some aisle-crossing — but not much

Minnesotans love to talk about their independent streak at the ballot box, and the state’s congressional districts offer some of the country’s starkest examples of ticket-splitting. In CD3, Paulsen won by 14 in 2016 — outperforming Trump by 16 points. In CD8, Nolan outperformed Clinton by 12 points.

There’s no presidential race on the ballot this year to consider, but the trend speaks to Minnesotans’ (relative) willingness to look past partisan labels in making their voting decisions. In its polling, the NYT estimated which of respondents voted like Democrats and which voted like Republicans, and tried to break down their responses through that prism.

In both districts, this is an interesting factor to look at: In CD3, Phillips is actively courting Republicans who feel that the GOP of Trump has drifted too far from their comfort zone. In CD8, Stauber is trying to make inroads with longtime Democrats who may feel they’re now better represented by a more economically populist, socially conservative message that Trump touts.

In the 3rd, 61 percent of the “estimated Republicans” polled by the NYT preferred Paulsen, but 35 percent of them liked Phillips better — suggesting Phillips’ play for Republicans may not be totally misguided. Of the estimated Democrats polled, 67 percent preferred Phillips, while only 25 percent went for Paulsen.

In the 8th, 67 percent of the estimated Republicans went for Stauber, while just 12 percent went for Radinovich. Of the estimated Democrats, 56 percent went for the DFL candidate, but 30 percent preferred Stauber — suggesting, too, that Stauber’s play for traditional Democratic voters may not be a waste of time.