Democrat Tim Walz leads Republican Jeff Johnson in the race for governor with just over two weeks until the election, but the race has tightened in the past month, according to a new Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota Poll.
Walz won support from 45 percent of voters while Johnson was backed by 39 percent. Johnson’s support ticked up from 36 percent in the September Minnesota Poll, while Walz’s stayed at the same level.
Walz is a congressman from Mankato, and Johnson is a Hennepin County commissioner from Plymouth. The poll found both candidates still have a chance to swing votes their way as they mount final pitches, with 12 percent still undecided and one in seven voters recognizing neither candidate. Another 4 percent backed one of two minor-party candidates.
The tightening nature of the race suggests Walz may not be on track for a commanding win. But Johnson would need to swing undecided voters almost entirely his way in the next two weeks to overtake his rival. The poll finds sharp divides by geography, gender and age, and almost no crossover between Democrats and Republicans.
The poll of 800 likely voters was taken Oct. 14-17, with 40 percent of the callers on cellphones and 60 percent on landlines. Its margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. In the sample of voters, 38 percent identified themselves as Democrats, 33 percent as Republicans and 29 percent as independent.
Walz holds his biggest leads in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, with support from a strong majority of voters to 27 percent for Johnson. Walz’s lead in his home turf of southern Minnesota has shrunk to nearly nonexistent since the earlier poll, and he has lost significant support from male voters.
Johnson now leads by comfortable margins in northern Minnesota and the Twin Cities suburbs outside the two largest counties, and he holds a large lead with men.
Walz continues to dominate among an increasingly important voter bloc for Democrats: women voters, with whom he holds a 20-point lead, even larger than in the September poll. Walz has a big advantage with voters under age 34 and also leads among those under 49. Johnson has a small lead among voters over 65.
“Education’s an incredibly important issue to me,” said Janna Goerdt, who was polled and supports Walz, a former high school teacher and coach and a National Guard veteran who has stressed his personal biography as he campaigns. Goerdt, who has twin 5-year-old boys, is a vegetable farmer and freelance writer in the northern Minnesota town of Embarrass.
Goerdt, who comes from a family of educators, said she trusts Walz given his time in the classroom.
Several Johnson supporters who were polled said in follow-up interviews that their support for him is strongly related to revulsion for Democrats.
“I’m less Republican than anti-Democrat,” said Jim Honsey, a 75-year-old Rochester voter who retired after a long career at IBM.
Dick Larson, an 82-year-old Bloomington resident who works as a financial adviser, contrasted Democrats now with former senator and Vice President Hubert Humphrey. “You can’t talk to a Democrat today and tell them what you think about what’s going on without being yelled at, sworn at or walked away from,” he said.
Larson and Honsey both decried what they said was dishonorable behavior by Democrats during the Supreme Court confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz, who has studied the phenomenon, calls this “negative partisanship” — voting decisions driven by disdain for the other party.
Barry Lau, 47, views the election like Larson and Honsey — but in reverse.
He said he could never support a candidate who has aligned himself or herself with President Donald Trump, as Johnson has done wholeheartedly.
“That’s a huge, huge issue,” said Lau, who works in financial services and who participated in the Minnesota Poll.
Asked if he viewed the election — up and down the ballot — as a check on Trump, Lau replied, “Absolutely. There needs to be some balance.”
Johnson, who has been using the remaining weeks of the campaign to launch attacks on Walz on issues like taxes, immigration and health care, is now winning independent voters after lagging with them in the previous poll.
Johnson has also attacked Walz for saying he would sign a gas tax increase. But the Minnesota Poll found broad support for a 10-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase to fund road and bridge construction and maintenance. It was supported by 56 percent statewide, with only 36 percent opposed. The gas tax increase had majority support in all regions and among all age groups; only Republicans in the poll were firmly opposed.
Lau, who lives in Bloomington and spends a lot of time bogged down in traffic commuting to downtown Minneapolis and other areas around the metro to attend choir practice or drive to his partner’s house, said he would be fine with a gas tax increase to improve mobility.
Johnson can count on the support of at least one Minnesota Poll participant: Jeff Johnson. No relation.
“I’ve watched Jeff Johnson’s career,” said the other Jeff Johnson, this one a married father of two adult children who lives in Medina.
“He’s a Minnesota Republican,” said Johnson, calling him conservative — but not too conservative.
“There’s nothing outstanding about him, but I think we need to have a change at the statehouse,” the other Jeff Johnson said. Whoever wins the governor’s race will replace Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, who has served two terms. The other two candidates in the race are Libertarian Josh Welter and Chris Wright of the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party.
The Jeff Johnson who is not on the ballot said he’ll be happy when the election is over: “They’re very hard on me in the ads,” he joked.