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DFLer Tim Walz leads Republican Jeff Johnson in the race for governor with less than two months to the election, a Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota Poll has found.

Walz holds a 9-point advantage over Johnson, at 45 to 36 percent. The poll finds about one in six voters still undecided in the race, and nearly one in five said they were not familiar with the candidates. Walz is a congressman from southern Minnesota, and Johnson is a Hennepin County commissioner.

Walz holds his biggest leads in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, with support from a majority of voters, while Johnson is backed by 27 percent. Walz also holds a comfortable lead in his home turf of southern Minnesota. Johnson leads Walz, but by smaller margins, in the other counties of the Twin Cities area and in northern Minnesota.

See full Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota Poll results.

Another advantage for Walz: women voters, with whom he holds an 18-point lead. He and Johnson are tied among men. Walz has a huge advantage with voters under age 34 and also leads among those under 49. Johnson has a much smaller lead among voters over 50. Walz also has a sizable advantage with independent voters, 40 to 26 percent.

The poll of 800 likely voters was taken Sept. 10-12, with 40 percent of the callers on cellphones and 60 percent on landlines. Its margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. In the sample of voters, 37 percent identified themselves as Democrats, 31 percent as Republicans and 32 percent as independent.

Walz’s strength in southern Minnesota illustrates a key advantage for the DFLer: He’s staving off the Republican Party’s emerging strength in greater Minnesota. After six terms in Congress representing the First Congressional District, the Mankato resident’s lead in the poll in his home region is 48 percent to Johnson’s 34 percent.

“He has knowledge of what rural Minnesota needs, but also what the metro needs,” said Diane Frodermann, 66, a poll participant who lives in Jackson, where she helps run a family hardware and farm supply business.

In Hennepin and Ramsey counties, the DFL’s most reliable strongholds, Walz leads by a 2-to-1 ratio.

For Johnson, who was the Republican candidate for governor in 2014, the poll has at least one bright spot: He’s considerably better known than he was at this time four years ago, when he went on to lose to Gov. Mark Dayton by 110,000 votes. But he finds himself in a familiar position with about 50 days until the election: with considerable ground to make up, and hunting for resources to close the gap.

Despite his gains in name recognition, fully half of poll respondents either don’t know who Johnson is or have no opinion of him. About a quarter of Minnesotans hold unfavorable views of Johnson, while another quarter have favorable views.

“He seems like a strong religious man who has good morals,” said poll participant Kaye Anderson, a Vadnais Heights retiree. “I like what he stands for, I like that he’s for business.”

Walz has the same level of name recognition as Johnson, but his favorability rating is higher and his unfavorable rating is lower.

Notably, Johnson is doing better locking down Republican voters than Walz is with DFLers. Johnson is backed by 90 percent of Republican voters, while 84 percent of DFLers are voting for Walz. On the flip side, the poll found just 2 percent of Republicans supporting Walz — and no DFLers for Johnson. Walz also leads Johnson across income levels.

The two candidates already have sketched out starkly different visions for the future of state government: Walz would spend money on schools and universities, roads, rural broadband and other investments in an effort to create the infrastructure and skilled workforce of the future. Johnson would cut taxes and reduce regulations to make it easier for businesses to thrive.

The stakes of the election go beyond any particular issue, however: The next governor will preside over the redrawing of legislative and congressional district lines after the 2020 census, a process that will shape Minnesota politics for the coming decade.

Voters in the poll reported more immediate concerns: health care and education. Given a list of a dozen issues and asked which is most important in their vote for governor, 25 percent said health care and 18 percent said quality of public education. The next highest after those were the economy and jobs, immigration and taxes.

Walz voters cited health care, education, the economy and jobs, and protecting the environment as their top issues, in that order. Johnson voters cited as their top four issues immigration, the economy and jobs, taxes and health care.

“I’m a father of five, so health care and education are key,” said Brendan Banks, a 33-year-old Walz supporter who lives in Crystal.

“We recently moved from Texas a year ago, and in Minnesota, even the worst schools here are better than the best school in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana,” said Banks, a former police officer who is chief of staff at Serenity Village Community Church. “But we always strive for better.”

Echoing a national trend that has seen younger voters increasingly embracing Democrats, Walz’s single biggest demographic advantage is with voters between the ages of 18 and 34, 62 percent of whom are backing his campaign. Just 17 percent from that age group support Johnson.

Walz, who spent more than 20 years as a high school geography teacher in Mankato before getting elected to Congress, has made education a theme of his campaign in the past several months. He’s promised smaller class sizes, universal prekindergarten and two years of subsidized, tuition-free college.

Johnson has proposed providing families with vouchers or tax credits to send their child to a new school, along with passing a “parent trigger” law. A number of states have such laws, which allow families to have a referendum on a school, potentially forcing major changes such as turning it into a charter school.

On the voters’ most important issue — health care — the politics are complex. National polls show Americans want to keep the major elements of the Affordable Care Act, passed under President Barack Obama. The health law expanded Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor and disabled, and prevented insurance companies from denying coverage to people because of a prior medical condition.

But some voters are still frustrated with the program’s messy architecture and inability to provide high quality, affordable coverage for some consumers.

Anderson, the Vadnais Heights woman who plans on voting for Johnson, is not old enough for Medicare, the government insurance program for the nation’s seniors. Instead, she relies on the individual market, she said, paying $600 per month for a plan with a $12,000 deductible.

“That’s our number one issue,” she said, adding: “It sounds like [Johnson’s] interested in jumping into the health care issue.”

Johnson wants to give consumers like Anderson the ability to buy a policy that is cheaper but includes less coverage, while Walz’s plan would allow her to buy into the state’s public insurance program, MinnesotaCare.

In addition to Walz and Johnson, there are two minor-party candidates on the ballot for governor: Chris Wright of the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis party, and Libertarian Josh Welter. Together they tallied 3 percent support in the Minnesota Poll.

For more information, see the report by MPR News and a briefing by APM Research Lab.

How the poll was conducted

Today’s Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota Poll findings are based on interviews conducted Sept. 10-12 with 800 Minnesota likely voters. The interviews were conducted via landline (60 percent) and cellphone (40 percent). The poll was conducted for the Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio News by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc.

Results of a poll based on 800 interviews will vary by no more than 3.5 percentage points, plus or minus, from the overall population 95 times out of 100. Margins are larger for groups within the sample, such as Democrats and Republicans, and age groups.

The self-identified party affiliation of the respondents is 37 percent Democrats, 31 percent Republicans and 32 percent independents or other.

Sampling error does not take into account other sources of variation inherent in public opinion surveys, such as nonresponse, question wording or context effects. In addition, news events may have affected opinions during the period the poll was taken.

Readers can e-mail questions to djmcgrath@startribune.com.