MPR poll: Senate race still up for grabs

Barkley, Franken, Coleman
U.S. Senate candidates Dean Barkley, Al Franken and Norm Coleman.
MPR Photo

The poll shows Franken leading Coleman among likely voters, 41 percent to 37 percent. But that's within the margin of sampling error: 4.6 percentage points.

Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley trails both of them with 17 percent, and 5 percent are undecided. Those results are roughly in line with two other recent polls showing Coleman leading Franken within the margin of error, with Barkley in the teens.

University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs said the race is clearly a tossup, with plenty of voters whose support for their chosen candidate is "soft."

Graphic: Senate poll
The Minnesota Public Radio News-University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute survey was conducted of 451 likely Minnesota voters between October 24th and October 28th. The margin of error is 4.6 points. For smaller subgroups the margin of sampling error is larger.
MPR Graphic/Than Tibbetts

"There's about 13 percent percent who say they still may change their mind," he said. "So, this a race that is very close and it's still quite fluid with either candidate being in a position to pull it out."

Jacobs said the poll holds good news and bad news for all three candidates.

"The good news for Al Franken is that he's put together this coalition of the disaffected, the enthusiastic, the young and the old," he said.

Franken leads among voters younger than 29, and voters older than 45. The poll also shows his supporters are generally more enthusiastic than Coleman's.

And as for "the disaffected," those are voters who are flocking to Democrats because they're upset with the Bush administration and especially the state of the economy.

"The economy is the dominant issue," Jacobs said. "Two-thirds of voters are singling out the economy and jobs as the single most important issue, and on that they're breaking decidedly for Franken."

Scott Fogelson, who lives in Grant Minnesota, is one such voter.

"I'm going to hold my nose and vote for Franken," he said.

In another year, with a better economy, Fogelson probably would have gone for Barkley. But he said the stakes are too high to take a chance on a third party candidate.

"I think Dean Barkley is qualified," he said. "I don't think he's electable. And I think we need the Democratic Party to in order to overcome the issues the country faces."

So the bad economy is clearly a boon for Franken.

But the bad news for Franken is, in spite of that, he's still in a statistical tie with Coleman. This is the same poll that shows Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama up nearly 20 percentage points over Republican John McCain. So that's good news for Coleman.

Larry Jacobs said the poll also shows Coleman has been more successful than Franken at positioning himself as a moderate.

"There's about a half of Minnesota voters who say that they think that Al Franken is too liberal, compared to just a third of Minnesotans who say Coleman is too conservative," he said.

Coleman managed to win over Minneapolis independent Janet Peterson. She's voting Obama for President. She's supported Republicans, Democrats and Indepents in the past, and she considered all three U.S. Senate candiates. But Coleman won Peterson's vote in last week's debate.

"He leaned forward and he talked about the practicalities of being a senator," she said. "Here's what the job is, sometimes you have to vote for bills that have things in them, maybe you don't like, but you can't afford to wait for the perfect bill. And you can't go around just being against things. That was the moment."

The bad news for Coleman is the poll shows public disapproval for President Bush is driving other voters away from him. That would include Thomas Rochon of Minnetonka.

"Historically, I've always considered myself a Republican, usually a moderate Republican overall, sometimes a conservative Republican in some areas," he said.

But there's no way he's voting for Coleman.

"He's just been a continuation of the George Bush years," he said. As a fiscal conservative, Rochon can't bring himself to support Franken. And he's worried going third-party might be throwing his vote away, but at this point, he's committed to Barkley.

"The only thing I can do is vote for, and spread the word to people I know," he said. "Hopefully they'll vote for him. That's all I can do is just hope for the best."

The poll was conducted between last Friday and this Tuesday. That was before Barkley started running TV ads. And considering that, Jacobs said his 17 percent showing is respectable.

"He's drawing equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans," he said. "And he's drawing about a third of the independents out there. That's impressive."

Jacobs said Barkley has a big challenge, though. He has to convince those supporters he can pull ahead. Otherwise, they might start defecting to Franken and Coleman. For Franken and Coleman, Jacobs said the most important thing now is to get their supporters out to the polls.