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New poll: Walz up by 9 in governor's race, but fence-sitters abound

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A sizable percentage remain undecided for Minnesota Governor
A sizable percentage remain undecided and unfamiliar with both candidates, according to the MPR News | Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.
William Lager | MPR News

Democrat Tim Walz has a clear lead over Republican Jeff Johnson in the race to be Minnesota's next governor.

But with fewer than two months until the election, a sizable percentage remain undecided and unfamiliar with both candidates, according to a new MPR News/Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.

Of 800 registered voters statewide who participated in the poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy, 45 percent said they support Walz, a six-term congressman from southern Minnesota, while 36 percent said they would like to see Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner, become the next governor.

The Walz-Johnson numbers are striking when it comes to the support of Minnesota women. While men are split evenly at 40 percent, Walz holds a substantial advantage over Johnson with women — 50 percent to 32 percent.

Walz holds a strong lead with women voters
While men are split evenly at 40 percent, Walz holds a substantial advantage over Johnson with women -- 50 percent to 32 percent in the Minnesota Governor MPR News | Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.
William Lager | MPR News

  Kristin Nelson fits the profile of a Walz supporter. She's in her 30s, self-employed and generally votes for Democrats. Walz outperformed Johnson with both women and younger voters. "He's a nice guy. I like his policies," said Nelson, who lives in Eden Prairie.

        Walz supporters also ranked health care and public education as their top issues in the race. 

"Health care is important and getting more and more expensive and I want to be able to afford to go to the doctor," Nelson said.

In southwestern Minnesota, Loretta Parker of Marshall likes what Johnson has to say about cracking down on immigration and slowing down state spending. 

The homemaker, who has lived in Minnesota for 14 years and supports President Trump, said the state is too open when it comes to immigration. 

"I love having diversity," she said, "but we need to enforce our law."

The most important issue to voters for the governor's race
Minnesota voters were asked what issue is most important to them in the governor's race in the MPR News | Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.
William Lager | MPR News

Immigration was the top issue in the race for more than 25 percent of those in the poll who backed Johnson. The economy, jobs and taxes were not far behind, which also rank high on Parker's priority list for the next governor.

        "We don't have enough say where our money goes," she said. "I think it's just kind of like a free-for-all. Let's give our money for this that and the other."

Gov. Mark Dayton is not running for a third term, so there's a lot at stake for both parties as they try to win the open seat. 

Stakes high for DFL, GOP

The next governor will have a huge say in the future of the state, from crafting the $46 billion budget to the redistricting process that will reshape Minnesota elections for at least the next decade.

        Republicans currently control the Legislature, and the open seat for governor gives them their first shot since 1969 to take the executive and legislative branches. 

The party, however, hasn't managed to win a statewide race in Minnesota in more than a decade.

        Democrats are desperate to maintain control of the executive branch. Dayton, a Democrat, has blocked numerous Republican policies over the last eight years, creating a stark contrast with neighboring Wisconsin, where a Republican governor and majority have passed a slew of conservative policies since 2011. 

But the party has its own losing streak: a DFL candidate has never won the governor's office following a Democratic administration. A Democratic administration has always been followed by a Republican or other party.

      In August, Walz prevailed in a three-way DFL primary for governor against state Rep. Erin Murphy of St. Paul and Attorney General Lori Swanson. 

Johnson, who ran and lost to Dayton in 2014, rode his support for Trump to a surprisingly comfortable primary win over former Gov. Tim Pawlenty. But loyalty to Trump could cut both ways in November.

       Plymouth voter John Johnson doesn't necessarily feel strongly about Walz, but the self-described independent is dead set against backing the GOP nominee because he supports Trump. 

"I would vote against him whoever was running against him," Johnson said. "He's a puppet of Trump."

      The MPR News/Star Tribune Minnesota poll of likely voters was conducted from Sept. 10 to Sept. 12 with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, meaning that there is a 95 percent probability that the "true" figure would fall within that range if all adults were surveyed.

      The findings were similar to another recent independent poll showing Walz ahead. Chris Wright, who is running under the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis party, and Josh Welter, a Libertarian, are also on the ballot for governor and were included in the poll.

  In a high-profile race like governor, poll numbers not only offer a snapshot of where candidates stand at a certain point in time, but they also act as a barometer for donors and national groups trying to figure out where to invest their resources. 

The Republican Governors Association recently reeled back roughly two weeks of television airtime in late September and early October they reserved to run ads in the race, meaning they are shifting those resources elsewhere.

  "This race is far from over," said Craig Helmstetter, managing partner of the APM Research Lab, a sister organization of MPR News that specializes in analysis of demographics and surveys. 

While most Democrats and Republicans siding with their own candidate, voters who don't identify with a party are more open to persuasion, Helmstetter said. "Like many races, it looks like this will come down to the independents, those unaffiliated voters."

Who are you?

Democrat Tim Walz and Republican Jeff Johnson
Democrat Tim Walz and Republican Jeff Johnson. A sizable percentage remain undecided and unfamiliar with both candidates, a new MPR News/Star Tribune Minnesota Poll shows.
Lacey Young | MPR News and Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Johnson and Walz are in a sprint to build up their name recognition before November: 19 percent of poll respondents said they didn't recognize Johnson's name, and 18 percent said they were unfamiliar with Walz. Early voting for the general election starts Sept. 21.

        Among respondents who did recognize the candidates, 37 percent said they viewed Walz favorably to Johnson's 26 percent. Thirteen percent viewed Walz unfavorably while 24 percent viewed Johnson unfavorably.

       Independent voters will be a key group to swing in the race, and Walz has an advantage, according to the poll, with 40 percent of self-identified independent voters supporting him to Johnson's 26 percent. However, 27 percent of independent voters said they are still undecided.

Computer repair technician and real estate agent Rich Johnson doesn't know who he's going to to vote for. Originally from Wisconsin, Johnson said he believes Minnesota is doing "gangbusters" by comparison.   

Tired of the political polarization, he said he's looking for a candidate offering realistic and middle-ground plans on education and guns — and who wouldn't mind lower taxes either. 

"I probably will not make up my mind, honestly, until it's voting day," Johnson said, acknowledging that means he'll be an attractive target for both sides until the Nov. 6 election.

"If they want to come all the way up here to Onamia," he said, "a little town of a few hundred people, and knock on my door — fine."