Poll: Walz up 7 over Jensen in governor’s race

A collage of governor candidates Scott Jensen and Tim Walz
Dr. Scott Jensen, (left) and Gov. Tim Walz, frontrunners for the Minnesota governor's race, speak at the FarmFest gubernatorial debate in Morgan, Minn. on Aug. 3. A new Minnesota Poll shows Walz leading Jensen.
Photos by Jackson Forderer for MPR News

DFL Gov. Tim Walz is ahead of Republican challenger Scott Jensen by seven percentage points with less than two months to go in their race, according to a new MPR News/Star Tribune/KARE 11 Minnesota Poll that also shows a majority approves of the incumbent’s job performance.

 The Walz lead over Jensen stands at 48 to 41 percent. 

Ten percent told the Mason Dixon Polling and Strategy firm that they hadn’t made up their minds and a tiny fraction said they would opt for a third-party candidate. 

It gives Jensen, a doctor and former state senator, room to catch Walz if he can convince virtually all of the undecideds to come his way. 

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The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points in the poll of 800 registered voters conducted September 12-14.

Meanwhile, about 52 percent say they approve of how Walz has done his job. That’s a better showing than Democratic President Joe Biden, who got a positive mark from just 46 percent and was viewed negatively by 49 percent. The rest were unsure. 

Walz has been at the helm through a pandemic, civil unrest and a roller coaster economy.

“I think he's a straight shooter. And he's done a good job,” said Mike Casey of Duluth, who was among respondents willing to be interviewed by a reporter after answering the poll. 

“Through the pandemic, I felt he was very transparent. He did a lot of work to try to keep us as safe as we could. They say you vote for who you like, not necessarily everything else,” Casey said. “He just really comes across to me as an upstanding gentleman and doing a great job. And besides that, his opponent is just the complete opposite who might ever consider being a governor.”

Mary Williamson of Carver opposes Walz and the actions he took during COVID-19.

“All I would see from Walz was more pressing in on school closings, and ‘Oh, isn't this a shame and boy we're trying hard.’ He was on soap boxes every day with you know, the education people, and it was awful,” Williamson said, adding that she trusts Jensen and is aligned with his values.

Williamson said her children and others shouldn’t have been kept out of school buildings for as long as they were. 

“My children have suffered. I mean, suffered. And the children of the state have suffered. And I cannot support a man who just looks blindly into the eyes of this whole state and refused to stand up for what was right,” she said of Walz. “I cannot back him. I cannot. He’s a hot mess.”

The poll asked about the top issues for voters: Nearly a third of poll respondents said jobs and the economy. That was followed by crime and abortion at about 24 percent and 22 percent respectively. But Walz and Jensen supporters ranked those concerns in different orders.

Walz has a 20 point lead among women while Jensen has an edge about half that size among men. 

A Minnesota governor hasn’t been booted by voters since 1990. How incumbents fare depends to a big degree on the case they make for themselves and the case their opponent makes against them.

“I think my biggest thing is with Walz,” said poll respondent Monica Nelson of Prior Lake.

She said she intends to vote for Jensen, in part because she’s upset with Walz. She said the governor reacted tentatively to the upheaval following George Floyd’s killing by police.

“And I don't like the way that he handled the Lake Street incident,” Nelson said. “They didn't follow protocol. Protocol for anything like that was all hands on deck.”

But Walz and allies are using millions of dollars in TV ads to hammer Jensen. They’ve criticized him for comments he’s made on education funding and limiting abortion access.

The messages around abortion have resonated with Nadine Garcia of Crystal, whose vote for Walz would be as much a vote against Jensen.

“It's more about preventing what Scott Jensen would do to me. I haven't had much chance to be too caught up in politics recently when it comes to the tighter elections, the more local ones,” Garcia said. “But I am very worried about making sure we still have a right to our own bodies.”

If Walz prevails, it would be the fourth straight term of a Democratic governor — something that hasn’t happened since Minnesota achieved statehood in 1858.

He’d also have to overcome voter perceptions of Biden, whose approval rating is considerably lower than the 52 percent vote share he had in Minnesota in 2020.

Biden’s standing is one factor in the election environment that could determine who controls Congress and the state Legislature. The party of first-term presidents often struggle in the midterm election.

Nikhil Joglekar of West St. Paul is willing to give Biden the benefit of the doubt despite the ongoing pandemic and persistent inflation.

“Honestly, what else would you do? I mean, like the Federal Reserve is doing what they can do right now. They're probably going to increase rates again next week,” Joglekar said. “And I think that President Biden is doing a really good job, you know, in light of all the challenges.”

For additional findings from the September MPR News/Star Tribune/KARE 11 Minnesota Poll, including notes about methodology and sample characteristics, visit the APM Research Lab methodology page here.