Gov. Tim Walz's approval rating has fallen to 49%, dipping 8 percentage points over the past year and foreshadowing a potentially close race for re-election next fall, according to a new Minnesota Poll.

The survey of 800 registered voters found 44% disapprove of the job Walz has done as governor, while 7% are unsure, a narrow margin of support for the Democrat after a first term dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of George Floyd's killing.

His support is split starkly along partisan and regional lines, mirroring political polarization trends nationwide.

"He's been more than tested, as we all know now, with not only the pandemic but with the uprisings and everything else," said Phil Jones, a 39-year-old graphic designer from Minneapolis, who supports Walz.

The poll, conducted Sept 13-15, was sponsored by the Star Tribune, MPR News, KARE 11 and FRONTLINE.

Walz, a former congressman who was elected governor in 2018, has not yet made an announcement about his political future, but he is raising money and widely expected to seek a second term. More than a half dozen Republicans are running to challenge him next fall, focusing their messaging on crime rates, election security and criticism of Walz's response to the pandemic.

In response to the poll, Walz spokesman Teddy Tschann said, "Governor Walz remains focused on doing his job — protecting the health and safety of Minnesotans, expanding economic opportunity, and ensuring that every child receives a high-quality education."

For more than a year, Walz used emergency powers to try to slow the spread of the virus, closing businesses and classrooms and requiring masks.

Ultimately, Walz phased out all restrictions and gave up those powers in July as part of a budget deal with the divided Legislature.

But Walz's approval rating remains closely linked to views about how he has responded to the pandemic.

Jeffrey Mackenthun of Waconia initially opposed Walz for his views on taxes, and his disapproval only intensified as he watched the way the governor handled the pandemic.

Mackenthun is vaccinated but doesn't support vaccines being mandated, and he opposed Walz's closure of businesses and schools.

"What is going on in the schools and the way we are holding our kids back is a huge setback," said Mackenthun.

Walz saw his job approval spike at the height of the pandemic last spring. By September 2020, it dropped to 57% after a summer of civil unrest and COVID-19 restrictions.

Jennifer Piehl, a 46-year-old hotel employee from Welch in southeastern Minnesota, said she thinks Walz has done a good job of balancing the challenges thrown at him in his first term.

"He has to try and walk that tightrope of being cautious enough but not too cautious that it hurts society, too," Piehl said. "I think he's done a very good job of that."

Self-identified Democrats and supporters of Joe Biden strongly back Walz, while Republicans and former President Donald Trump voters polled nearly as strong in their disapproval of his job as governor.

While 68% of voters in the state's two most populous counties approve of Walz's job as governor, 56% of people polled in southern Minnesota said they disapprove of him, with 51% of people in northern Minnesota saying they felt the same.

Walz's approval is underwater in the suburbs, where 52% of voters polled said they disapprove of his work and 42% said they approve.

Walz is more popular among women and college-educated voters, of whom 63% and 60% respectively say they approve of his job as governor.

Most voters between the ages of 18 and 49 approve of his work.

Jones said he learned more about the first-term governor's positions on "virtually every issue" after the pandemic hit.

While those moments put Walz in the spotlight, Jones said he's appreciated his clear messaging on COVID-19 and his use of emergency powers to take quick action when needed.

"Walz trusting in science first as the basis for any decisionmaking, for me, felt very comfortable," he said.

But Frank Moody, an 85-year-old Air Force veteran from Rochester, said he hasn't seen enough decisive decisionmaking from Walz. He's waiting to learn more about the Republican candidates before deciding how he'll vote in the 2022 governor's race.

"I think he's doing the best he can," Moody said of Walz. "He's not an aggressive governor, but I think he just kind of sits back and follows whatever others are telling him to do."

Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy Inc. of Jacksonville, Fla., surveyed 800 registered voters by cellphone and landline. The margin of sampling error for the poll is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042

Twitter: @bbierschbach