Nancy Barnes: Election year -- prime time for the Minnesota Poll

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES
  • Star Tribune Editor
  • May 17, 2008 - 4:22 PM

This Sunday's installment of the Minnesota Poll extends a tradition that began more than six decades ago, on March 19, 1944, when we first began polling Minnesotans about their lifestyles and their politics.

The landscape of the state, the country and the world has changed much since that first poll, but we are proud of a tradition that has provided a snapshot over time of this state's people and the issues that are most important to them. When this effort was started, the country was in the middle of a war in Europe. Now, we are in the middle of a war in the Middle East. The middle class, as we have come to know it today, barely existed. This year, members of the middle class have much that their parents never imagined -- yet feel squeezed and trapped by 21st-century trends and world events that could not have been foreseen in 1944.

That's part of the reason for polling -- to capture sentiment and mark moods and opinions so that we can better understand the past, the present and the way people have changed. If we poll consistently, we can catch those trends as they emerge over time and in response to world events.

This year, we plan to publish five polls; most will focus on politics, since we are in the middle of one of the most interesting presidential campaigns in history. We have a U.S. Senate election, too, along with lots of local races. We don't view the polls as a predictor -- merely as a snapshot in time -- because opinions can morph in the span of days, especially in a heated election year.

Polling is an inexact science, of course. It is about probability and statistics and margins of error. Still, political editor Doug Tice points out: "In an era when interactivity is all the rage, polls remain the original device for ordinary people to make themselves heard by the media and the policymakers."

At times, our polls have become a political football, with individuals alleging that we were slanting our approach to favor one party over another or to influence the outcome of an election. That has never been the case. Because of staffing changes, however, this year's poll will be done somewhat differently. Instead of overseeing most of the research ourselves, we have subcontracted with a national polling company, Princeton Survey Research Associates International, which also conducts polls for Newsweek and for the Pew Research Center. For much of last week, Princeton was in the field questioning Minnesotans. We begin presenting the results today.

With a budget for a handful of polls throughout the rest of the year, we are picking our spots carefully. Why now? With gas prices rising, the economy in disarray and the campaign underway, we wanted to get a sense of where Minnesotans stand and what issues are top of mind. This will help give us, and hopefully our readers, a better sense of the climate in the state and of which issues our residents think are the most important.

Senior editor Dennis McGrath, who is overseeing all political coverage this year, explained his thinking: "We wanted to test a number of things beyond the horse-race contests. In the presidential race, we wanted to see which issues are most important to people -- and whether they've changed since our poll in September. And we wanted to see whether Minnesotans think the prolonged Democratic nomination battle has hurt the party's chances in November.

"We also wanted to find out what people thought of DFL U.S. Senate candidate Al Franken's tax problems and their attitudes toward the incumbent, Republican Sen. Norm Coleman -- both the job he's doing and what he stands for politically."

In the coming days we'll also publish results on President Bush, as well as stories showing what Minnesotans think of the NWA/Delta merger and how their personal finances are faring.

I won't tip our hand too much, but you will see that sentiment regarding our most important challenges as a state and as a country has shifted with the events of the last year.

Polls are most interesting when findings are sharply defined, leaving little room for ambiguity.

Today's poll shows that it is clear the state is leaning Democratic in the national election -- at least for now. However, true to their independent streak, people in this state are also viewing candidates on a case-by-case basis. Gov. Tim Pawlenty continues to buck the national headwinds. We believe that's one reason his name keeps emerging as a potential running mate for Sen. John McCain.

But enough for now. Tune in the rest of the week as we roll out the poll's results -- for the 64th year in a row.

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