Today, the latest in a battery of polling data from Minnesota's U.S. Senate race was released, this time the Star Tribune's Minnesota Poll. The results of the poll are not my reason for this post, though if you're interested Sen. Al Franken, the incumbent Democrat, was up by double digits. The thing that got my attention was the sub-head, which read that Franken's substantial lead over GOP challenger Mike McFadden was reversed in Northern Minnesota, quite literally my neck of the woods. Here's an excerpt from the Abby Simons Star Tribune story:
Franken gets the backing of 49 percent of likely voters, while McFadden gets 36 percent. Another 11 percent say they have not yet decided.
The first-term Democrat runs strongest in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, where two-thirds say they support him compared with 20 percent for McFadden. The outlying metro suburbs also tilt toward Franken.
But that lead vanishes in northern Minnesota, where 55 percent prefer McFadden to Franken, who gets a little over one third. The number of undecideds also dwindles to 5 percent. The state’s Iron Range region has become politically volatile in recent elections, with fissures deepening this year over controversial issues like the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mining project that sometimes pit labor against environmentalists.
There it is again, mining. Well, let me tell you: The mining debate in Minnesota's Eighth Congressional District is a funny little hat on a complicated monkey.
According to the poll, 33 counties are included in the categorization of "Northern Minnesota." Only two counties -- St. Louis and Itasca -- contain significant sources of iron ore or other kinds of minerals. And while St. Louis County is the largest in Northern Minnesota, it is only a plurality of this region's population.
So there's the first issue: McFadden's lead in these counties doesn't necessarily come from the Iron Range, if he leads here at all. (Honestly, I'm not sure, though I sense another solid but less-than-spectacular DFL victory in the principal cities of the Mesabi Iron Range, somewhere between the soft 2010 and robust 2012 margins).
We don't know how many poll responses came from Duluth, where the index is dramatically more liberal than other parts of the region. Frankly, with 800 statewide respondents, only about 100 could have come from the "33 counties in Northern Minnesota" and there's just no way you can use that as a full picture of where the region is. For instance, if you're polling the 218 area code you're also polling western Minnesota, central Minnesota and other areas that routinely elect Republicans.
Minnesota's 8th Congressional District (only about half of which is north of Moose Lake) is becoming more like a midwestern swing state, not just an arbitrary political district. It has distinct subregions, conflicting coalitions of voter interest groups, and enough land mass to ensure that people who live on one side of the district might never in their whole lives set foot in a town on the other side of the district.
Last week I was talking to a friend who works for a national news organization, turning polling data into interactive web graphics. We were lamenting the fact that polling data is becoming less reliable as people become more sophisticated in their ability to avoid receiving unwanted calls from pollsters. It's reached the point where I am predicting that Nate Silver's wizard-like prognostication skills in the 2012 election might go down as the high water point for aggregate polling in this generation. Until we have a new way to gauge voter intentions, I think we're dealing with an increasingly guess-based business. If we're being honest with ourselves, that's what most political reporting and analysis (including what you're reading right now) has become.
I don't think Franken is really up by double digits in this election. Judging by the campaign activity, it would appear the candidates don't either. I certainly don't think McFadden is up by double digits on the Iron Range. But man, what a story ... if it were true.
My assessment, based on an aggregate of polls, conversations and economic conditions is as follows: Franken is ahead by a statistically significant margin, but there is an increasing political and cultural wedge between rural and urban Minnesota. The reasons for this include mining, but also much, much more than mining. So much of campaigning these days is the aggressive application of narrow partisan ideology to increasingly complex sociopolitical factors. Northern Minnesota is changing, while also facing economic challenges that aren't present elsewhere. As such, it will behave erratically at the polls because that's what pressure and change does to a region. Or a state. Or a country.