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Could regional differences of opinion on Minnesota’s handling of COVID offer the GOP an opportunity?

Most polls show majority support for Gov. Tim Walz’s handling of the pandemic. But there are big differences when it comes to how the response is viewed among Twin Cities voters and how it’s seen in the suburbs and Greater Minnesota. 

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka speaking at an "Open Up MN" press conference on Monday. Behind him is state Sen. Scott Jensen.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka speaking at an "Open Up MN" press conference on Monday. Behind him is state Sen. Scott Jensen.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

During an outdoor press conference Monday to announce a “Contract to Open Minnesota,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka was asked if the proposal was a winning election issue.

The contract called for reopening schools, churches and dining places with safeguards set by boards, congregations, restaurant managers and their patrons — rather than by the state. 

Gazelka denied that it was a political play, despite coming just two weeks before Election Day. “We think if the kids are not in school, we all suffer,” the East Gull Lake Republicans said. “That’s not a poll, that’s just talking to people, to mothers, who are reaching out to us very frustrated that their kids cannot be in school or they can’t go to a game and watch their kids play.”

But if it is a campaign strategy, despite Gazelka’s protests, is it a good one? 

An issue that could be helpful. Or not.

Most state polls — including the one recently conducted by Change Research for MinnPost — have shown majority support for Gov. Tim Walz’s handling of the pandemic as well as for taking measures to stop the spread of the virus or keeping some precautions in place while starting to reopen the economy.

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There’s also the risk for Republicans that the spread of the virus increases, as state Department of Health statistics show that it is. Walz himself responded to the contract with sarcasm — and a warning. “Maybe they found a cure for COVID while I was down here,” Walz said during a visit to Austin. Opening schools and then having to close them again because of an outbreak, he said, “doesn’t do anything. That’s how we shut everything down.”

Gov. Tim Walz
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Gov. Tim Walz
But legislative races aren’t won with statewide vote totals. They are won in 67 Senate districts and 134 House districts, all of which have races on the ballot on Nov. 3. And while results of MinnPost’s poll released this week show statewide support for Walz’s emergency actions to contain the virus, regional differences appear, with strong support in Minneapolis and St. Paul, somewhat less support in Twin Cities suburbs — and much less in Greater Minnesota. In fact, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said Thursday that schools and COVID is the No. 1 issue he hears when door knocking. 

Statewide, 53 percent of respondents rated Walz’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis excellent (29) or good (24), while 11 percent said not so good and 36 percent said it was poor. Those are nearly identical to the responses in the suburbs. Of those in the cities, 86 percent gave the governor a good or excellent rating on his response, while 57 percent of those in Greater Minnesota gave him a not so good or poor rating. 

The responses mirror the breakdown of nearly all the questions asked related to the coronavirus, with the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota bookending opinions with the suburbs falling somewhere in the middle. But since the battleground races that will determine control of the state House and Senate are in the suburbs and Greater Minnesota, and not in the cities, making an issue out of pandemic restrictions could be helpful to win over some voters. Or it could be a Hail Mary.

Stark regional differences on reopening schools

When it comes to how concerned people are about coronavirus, 44 percent of poll respondents statewide said they have “very serious concerns,” with another 17 percent saying “somewhat serious concerns,” 25 percent saying they have “minor concerns” and 15 percent saying “no concerns at all.”

But there are also stark regional differences in the responses: 

In the Twin Cities, very serious concerns got 73 percent; somewhat serious, 18 percent; minor concerns, 7 percent; and no concerns, 2 percent.

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In the suburbs, the breakdown was: 45 percent very serious, 17 percent somewhat serious, 24 percent minor concerns; and 14 percent not at all.

In Greater Minnesota: 35 percent, 17 percent, 29 percent and 20 percent.

On restarting in-person full-time schooling for K-12 students, 40 percent of respondents statewide said they “strongly support” such a move; 17 percent said they “somewhat support” it; 18 percent said they “somewhat oppose”; and 20 percent “strongly oppose.”

But the regional differences on the question were also pronounced. 

In the Twin Cities: 12 percent strongly support; 9 percent somewhat support, 33 percent somewhat oppose, 38 percent strongly oppose.

Suburbs: 40 percent strong support, 15 percent somewhat support, 19 percent somewhat oppose and 22 percent strongly oppose.

Greater Minnesota: 48 percent strongly support, 22 percent somewhat support, 12 percent somewhat oppose and 14 percent strongly oppose.

Regional differences also appeared when respondents were asked their views on what people should do to address the pandemic or limit the spread of the coronavirus: 73 percent of those in the Twin Cities said that “all possible measures” should be taken to limit the spread of the coronavirus while 18 percent said they favored “some precautions” but that people should start returning to work and public places. Only 8 percent of Twin Cities respondents said people are making “too big a deal” out of the pandemic and that life should return to normal, even if it means some people get sick. 

In the suburbs, however, 41 percent of respondents said “all possible measures” should be taken while 28 percent said “some precautions” should be taken. And 30 percent said “too big a deal” had been made of coronavirus. 

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In Greater Minnesota, meanwhile, 30 percent of respondents said “all possible measures” should be taken to combat the disease; 31 percent said “some precautions”; while 38 percent said “too big a deal” had been made of it.

There is more consensus on support for mask mandates in indoor public places. Statewide, 51 percent strongly support a mask mandate, 9 percent somewhat support it, 8 percent somewhat oppose it and 31 percent strongly oppose it.

In the Twin Cities, 90 percent strongly support, 3 percent somewhat support, 1 percent somewhat oppose and 6 percent strongly oppose.

In the suburbs, 51 percent strongly support, 9 percent somewhat support, 9 percent somewhat oppose and 30 percent strongly oppose.

And in Greater Minnesota: 40 percent strongly support, 10 percent somewhat support, 9 percent somewhat oppose and 39 percent strongly oppose.

Regional differences were also less stark on a potential vaccine for the coronavirus. When asked how confident they were that a vaccine will be safe and effective, 17 percent of respondents statewide said they were very confident, 43 percent somewhat confident, 23 percent not very confident and 18 percent not confident at all.

The poll was conducted by Change Research between Oct. 12 to Oct. 15 among 1,021 likely voters in Minnesota. The margin of error is 3.1 percentage points. (Crosstabs of the full results can be found here.) Change Research’s methodology involves targeting survey takers based on geography, age, gender, race and partisan identification via advertisements on websites and on social media. The company argues this allows it to “cast a net that is wider” than pollsters who rely on phone-based surveys. This poll was weighted — meaning the results were corrected to better represent the electorate — by gender, race/ethnicity, age, education and 2016 presidential vote.

The sample size by geography is 151 for Minneapolis and St. Paul, 405 for the Twin Cities suburbs outside of Minneapolis and St. Paul plus Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Scott and Washington counties, and 446 for the rest of the state. The margin of sampling error would be 8 percentage points within the city limits of Minneapolis and St. Paul, 4.9 percentage points for the seven-county Twin Cities metro besides Minneapolis and St. Paul, and 4.5 percentage points for the rest of the state.