Gov. Mark Dayton, a few months into his second term and in the thick of legislative session politics, still has Minnesotans behind him, a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll has found.
With the support of 54 percent of likely voters, Dayton’s approval rating rebounded to some of his best numbers since he first took office in 2011. Thirty-six percent disapprove, while 10 percent are undecided.
Dayton is in the midst of a State Capitol push for sizable spending increases on education and transportation, and some specifics of his agenda don’t poll as well as the DFL governor does himself. But the poll shows Dayton managed to withstand several weeks of tough coverage around his decision to grant hefty pay hikes to state agency commissioners, which provoked a harsh legislative backlash.
“I think he’s doing a great job. My husband and I think he straightened this state out,” said Vicki Schmidt, a 54-year-old Winona resident who called herself a stay-at-home wife. Having voted for Dayton twice, Schmidt said she now backs his plan to spend most of an expected $1.9 billion budget surplus on state priorities like education.
In September and again in October, as he faced the political slings of campaign season, Dayton’s approval rating dropped below 50 percent, after mostly staying above it throughout his first term. He still managed to handily defeat Republican opponent Jeff Johnson, winning a second term that he has said would be his last. Upon retaking office in January he promised a franker, less politically constrained style that he jokingly described as “Dayton unbound.”
Nowhere was this new approach more evident than in Dayton’s high-profile spat last month with his supposed DFL ally, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk. Amid the dispute over salary increases, Dayton publicly blasted Bakk as “conniving,” said he “stabbed me in the back,” and vowed he could no longer trust him. It was an unusually public meltdown between two powerful Democrats, since publicly mended. According to the Minnesota Poll the whole drama provoked a wide range of responses from voters.
By a narrow margin, a plurality of 31 percent said they “like that Dayton speaks his mind.” But nearly as many, 28 percent, said “Dayton should have kept his differences with Bakk private.” Another 25 percent thought the governor “overreacted,” while 16 percent weren’t sure what to think.
“Seems like he speaks his mind, even if it isn’t good. He was upset with his colleague, and we heard about it,” said Gary Danielson, a 53-year-old printing press operator from Cottage Grove. A political independent who tilts toward Democrats, Danielson said he may not always track with Dayton on the issues but likes the blunt approach.
“It makes it look like he’s not playing games,” Danielson said.
Dayton’s healthy approval rating cuts across age groups. He did particularly well with ages 18 to 34, with a 67 percent approval rating. He was at 53 percent with both 35- to 49-year-olds and those over 65, but fell to 46 percent among the 50- to 64-year-olds.
Among women, Dayton tallied a 57 percent approval rating, while he was at 50 percent with men, who traditionally lean more toward Republicans in voting. Geographically, his strongest base of support by far is in the population clusters of Hennepin and Ramsey counties, where he accumulated support from 66 percent. That support drops precipitously in the other five counties of the Twin Cities, where Dayton had just 42 percent support. In the state’s remaining 80 counties, he had a 53 percent approval rating.
Predictably, Dayton is backed by a whopping 83 percent of Democrats. Support among Republicans is low, but he nevertheless managed to win approval of nearly 20 percent. He also scored well with less ideological voters, getting a 52 percent rating from independents and 59 percent from unregistered voters.
Dayton responded to the poll findings in a statement conveyed by his press secretary. “I am very grateful for this support,” he said.
Some of the criticism mounted by Minnesota Republicans at Dayton has made an impression on voters, particularly the rap that spending has grown at an unacceptably fast rate under his leadership.
“He spends too much money, I think. He wanted to give everybody raises and they had to stop him,” said Mary Jermsta, 67, a retired clinic worker who lives in Minneapolis. She also seized on a favorite punching bag of Republicans, the new office building for state senators under construction on the Capitol grounds.
“He supported giving those senators new offices,” Jermsta said. She was unimpressed by Dayton’s willingness to take on a fellow DFLer in public fashion.
“No one gets along up there,” Jermsta said. “The Republicans and Democrats can’t get together and now you’re telling me the Democrats can’t get along with each other, either? They just make me mad sometimes.”