Slightly fewer than half of respondents to a new Minnesota Poll approve of the job performance of President Joe Biden and Gov. Tim Walz, underscoring possible political challenges facing Democrats ahead of the 2022 midterm election.
Biden, who won’t personally be on next year’s ballot, had a higher percentage of people disapprove of his performance — 51 percent to 47 percent; only 2 percent offered no opinion in the poll conducted for MPR News, the Star Tribune, KARE-11 and FRONTLINE.
As he nears a likely reelection announcement, Walz registered approval of 49 percent and disapproval of 44 percent, with the remainder on the fence. That’s notably down from the 57 percent approval this time in 2020, when Mason Dixon Polling and Strategy also surveyed 800 Minnesota registered voters by telephone on behalf of the media organizations.
Brad Coker, the chief pollster, said Walz’s proximity to the 50 percent mark — and not far off from his 2018 vote share — means it’s too soon to classify him as politically vulnerable.
“There's a long way to go. And plenty of issues that will pass across his desk. We still are dealing with COVID,” Coker said. “And I'm sure there are going to be many opportunities for him to gain or lose support between now and next year.”
This poll, conducted Sept. 13-15, didn’t test the standing of any of the Republicans vying for the governor’s mansion or ask about hypothetical matchups. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Walz fares best among women and people living in the Twin Cities; he struggles most among men and voters living outside of the metropolitan area, according to the results.
Poll respondent Phil Jones of Minneapolis, who identifies as a Democrat, is behind Walz. He said he appreciated the governor’s demeanor and decisions during the pandemic.
“His leadership was very strong throughout this. I’ve had the utmost confidence that Minnesota would get it right, and he did it right as far as leadership,” Jones said. “The straight language that he used and the backing of scientific voice was very helpful. We looked to him in the times where we didn’t understand what was going on and felt a sense of comfort.”
On the flip side, Curtis Borchert of Ada in northwestern Minnesota said those same COVID-19 actions bothered him. He said it made no sense to him that stores just across the border in North Dakota could be open but not on his town’s main street and that big-box retail was exempt from closure but not churches in the early going.
“You picked winners and losers, and the government was doing it,” he said of Walz.
Borchert, who classifies himself as a political independent, said Walz probably won’t get his vote next year.
“Everybody always has a chance. I just want to see what they stand for, what they’re doing. He’s just going to have a harder row to hoe than everybody else because he has a fairly good history that I’m not really satisfied with,” Borchert said.
Jeff Blodgett, a longtime Democratic strategist, said he’s confident Walz is well-positioned to win another term.
“Elections are choices between two candidates,” Blodgett said. “In the case of approval and disapproval, you're rating an individual without that choice. And so ultimately, it's about the different viewpoints and different positions on issues and people get to choose. And that has much more to do with the election result than those favorable, unfavorable numbers.”
Blodgett acknowledged his party enters this campaign facing headwinds typical of the first midterm of an incumbent president — one where the party that controls the White House tends to struggle.
MPR News polled around the same early point in Donald Trump’s presidency. That survey found Trump, who narrowly lost in Minnesota the year before, with a 36 percent approval rating. In the following year’s midterm election, his party lost two suburban congressional seats, forfeited control of the state House and was drubbed in the governor’s race.
Biden’s 47 percent approval rating is beneath his 52 percent vote share in the 2020 election.
Jennifer DeJournett, who runs Voices of Conservative Women, said conditions are ripe for GOP success next year. But she said gains in the Legislature and statewide race prospects hinge on the messengers the party picks.
She said Republicans should avoid playing “too far to the extreme” and concentrate on winning back voters who left them in recent years.
“The common sense in the middle just wants to hear: Tell me how you get back to a predictable way of life we can all thrive in. The suburban ring is especially susceptible to that message. And that’s where Republicans have been struggling,” she said. “We have to figure that out. If we don’t figure that out, we’re going to miss an opportunity.”
The president’s approval rating is far better with women — about two-thirds gave him a thumbs up. Among men, seven out of 10 disapproved. Similar divides are apparent geographically, where Biden is viewed favorably by a large margin in Hennepin and Ramsey counties but unfavorably by considerable spreads elsewhere.
And not surprisingly, Biden has a greater than 90 percent approval from Democrats and like-sized disapproval from Republicans.
Coker, the pollster, said partisan-based politics will be on full display in 2022. Which party can best rally their core supporters and sway independents will be key.
Self-identified independents were sour on both Biden and Walz. But Coker said polls taken in the near shadow of an election sometimes reveal that people whose party lost call themselves independents for a period of time before gravitating back to their political home.
“There's a certain percentage of folks in Minnesota who voted for Biden, not necessarily because they're in love with Biden, but he was a far better alternative to Trump in their eye,” Coker said. “Their loyalty to Biden is much softer.”
Patty Kelly of Austin, who told the pollster she voted for Biden, said she’s neutral on him at the moment.
“He hasn’t been president for very long,” she said of her stance. “The government moves slow to help people. If they want something from you, they want it right now.”
Frank Moody of Rochester, who said he voted for Trump, has seen enough to know he’s not impressed with Biden.
“I think he’s being used by the Democratic Party because he was in the government 40, 50 years whatever it’s been,” Moody said, “And they used him to get him in there as a scape so they can get their decisions in.”
MPR News reporters Tim Pugmire and Mark Zdechlik contributed to this story.
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