The conventional wisdom is that Franken is struggling in the MN Senate race – as evidenced by a series of polls showing Norm Coleman opening up a lead
So what to make of the poll released yesterday by the Minnesota Public Radio/ University of Minnesota showing Franken ahead of Coleman by 1%?
The full poll results are here:
The poll says that among “likely voters” Franken holds a 41-40 lead over the incumbent Republican, with Dean Barkley (Independence Party) polling 8 % and 11% undecided. (Margin of error is cited as 3.6%)
An incumbent Senator polling just 40% (even in a 2 1/2 way race) at this point seems remarkable. His approval/disapproval is a very close 46/42 (although elsewhere on the MPR website it says 42/40… but the 46/42 number comes directly from the poll internals, so I’ll assume it is accurate).
The poll also reports a 51-40-10 DFL – Republican – Independent party split overall, with Coleman holding 81% of Republicans, Franken 71% of DFL. Independents are listed as breaking 36% Coleman, 30% Franken, 11% Barkley, 23% undecided.
Among the 11% of likely voters the survey considered to be “swing voters” (with no definition of how they arrived at that definition), shows an even more undefined race, with Coleman leading at 35%, Franken at 26%, Barkley at 12%, and fully 27% undecided.
Assuming this is a very close race the 27% undecided among swing voters are obviously crucial if they break one way or another. Similarly, the nearly 30% of DFLers not currently supporting Franken (8% for Coleman, 8% for Barkley, and 13% undecided) are crucial…. if Franken can bring the bulk of these voters home, the current party breakdown in MN gives him a built in advantage.
One potentially big obstacle for Franken is that Coleman appears to be perceived as closer to the political centre than Franken. Fully 46% of those polled said Franken was “too liberal”, with 33% rating him “about right” and 4% “too conservative.” (Presumably the remaining 17% had no opinion.) By contrast, Coleman was considered “too conservative” by 36%, “about right” by 42%, and “too liberal” by 10%, and 12% unaccounted for. (Would be a great opening for a right wing independent/3rd party candidate to siphon off some votes from disaffected conservatives, wouldn’t it?)
I’m not sure what the UMN record on polling is, but while the results are tremendously encouraging, a number of key questions jump out.
The first is that the poll was conducted over an extremely long period of 11 days (Aug 7-17). This period of time is far longer than usually seen in more reliable polls. (Although the sample size of 763 is pretty good for a statewide poll.) An 11 day poll conduced in the middle of summer vacation season (when many of Minnesotans are off at the cabin…) has some inherent weaknesses.
The methodology of defining “likely voters” is briefly described in the poll report, and it makes reference to weighting by demographics and region – but little detail is provided to be able to assess how the “likely voter” screen may have impacted the results. (They don’t provide totals for all respondents to let us know if there is a “likely voter” bias toward one candidate or the other – although in a relatively high turnout state like Minnesota, that may be less important than in some other states.)
Similarly, no demographic information is provided about poll respondents — assumptions about turnout by urban, suburban and rural residence, and by age, sex, race/ethnicity, income, education etc could have a huge impact in interpreting this race — without information about these details, it is harder to make sense of this poll.
Finally, the Barkley support at 8% seems to be a critical. Will it hold up as high as 8% (or even grow) or will it collapse?
While Barkley briefly served in the Senate (he was appointed by Jesse Ventura to fill the remaining months of Paul Wellstone’s term), his record of running for office is not impressive – winning 7% for Senate in 1996, and 5% in 1994, and more impressive 16% in 1992 running for the newly redistricted 6th district seat.
Third party candidates have demonstrated greater appeal in Minnesota than in many other states, and Barkley appears to be tapping into some of the same types of voters who in the past have voted for Ventura, Perot, Tim Penney, Jim Gibson, and Peter Hutchinson – while only Venture won, the others showed a willingness to vote for independent candidates by a chunk of the Minnesota electorate.
At the moment, Barkley appears to be serving as a parking place for voters highly dissatisfied with Bush and Coleman but not ready to vote for Franken. Can Franken ultimately win over enough of these voters with an anti-Republican, anti-incumbent message?
As the analysis of the poll makes clear, Barkley is hurting Franken at the moment:
“The environment could be hurting Coleman more if Barkley were not in the contest. He is competing with Franken for the angry voter who disapproves of Bush and sees the country as off on the wrong track. Franken is only winning 51% of Minnesotans who are concerned that the country is off-track and Barkley is a major reason that the Democrat is not getting even more disaffected Minnesotans — he is drawing 9% of these voters. A similar story is evident with regard to Minnesotans who disapprove of Coleman and Bush: Barkley is diverting 9% of these critics — voters that might otherwise support Franken.”
Lots of variables remain in the race — will Obama run away with Minnesota or will it be as close as in last couple of elections? If Pawlenty ends up on the Republican ticket would it help Coleman? What will the impact of the RNC in St. Paul be on Minnesota public opinion — positive attention to the state, or an unwelcome collection of right wing nuts messing up traffic and hanging out in the airport men’s room?
Some folks have been saying this race is lost — if this poll is on target, it is clear that attitude is premature. This shows all signs of being a close one.