After two years of budget battles, vetoes and the longest state shutdown in Minnesota history, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton is winning the popularity battle with the GOP-controlled Legislature, a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll has found.
A slim majority of 53 percent of likely voters say they approve of Dayton's job performance, while 31 percent disapprove. Another 16 percent say they are undecided.
For the majority leaders of the Legislature, the poll found 51 percent disapprove of the job they are doing. Another 21 percent approve and 24 percent are undecided.
Dayton and the GOP legislative majority took office in January 2011, facing a $6.2 billion budget deficit, and the three-week partial state shutdown in July resulted from their impasse over how to resolve the crisis. They also have clashed over photo ID and gay marriage, which the Legislature put on the ballot as proposed constitutional amendments; an expansion of self-defense laws, which the Legislature passed and Dayton vetoed; and labor policy; federal health-care reform; and abortion restrictions.
The two sides have come together on certain issues, such as rulemaking reform in 2011 and a new Vikings stadium this year.
Dayton is not on the ballot in November, but all 201 legislative seats are. The Legislature as a group generally polls lower than the chief executive, no matter which party is in control.
Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, and House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said the results do not surprise or worry them -- nor do they see it as an indication of Minnesotans' support for Dayton's policies over the GOP's.
"History has taught us that legislative bodies, when considered in totality, do not ever poll very well," Senjem said, adding that individual legislators do "much better" in such polls.
"Nobody likes a nameless, faceless body, but they like their legislator," Zellers said, adding that even with approval ratings in the low 20s, the Minnesota Legislature still polls higher than Congress. A Gallup poll of congressional popularity hit a low of 10 percent this summer.
Both Senjem and Zellers are working hard to retain majorities in the two houses, while Dayton is trying to help DFL candidates win one or both houses. The GOP leaders said they believe the public is responding well to their stances on taxes and the budget.
"Ask people, 'Do you approve of the Legislature balancing the budget without raising taxes?' and I could show you a fantastic poll," Zellers said.
Dayton spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci said "the governor is grateful for the continued support of Minnesotans, especially during these difficult times." She said the results show "Minnesotans support our priorities," including "building a fair tax system that asks the richest Minnesotans to pay their fair share."
In the poll, Dayton's approval is strongest in Duluth and northeastern Minnesota, where more than 60 percent say they like what he's doing. That falls to 56 percent in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties but climbs to 57 percent in Rochester and southeastern Minnesota. Dayton is weaker in southwestern Minnesota, at 42 percent approval and 37 percent disapproval.
Dayton gets strong approval from women, at 57 percent, but gets the support of nearly half of men. His biggest fan base is voters under 35, with 57 percent approving of the job he's doing, compared to 51 percent of voters 65 and older.
For the majority leaders of the Legislature, certain trouble spots stand out: Only 24 percent of voters in the metro suburbs outside of Hennepin and Ramsey -- which include strong GOP areas -- approve of their leadership, while more than half disapprove. In southwestern Minnesota, 57 percent disapprove. They had slightly stronger showings in Rochester, where 30 percent approve, and in the northwest corner of the state at 33 percent.
One startling figure is that the GOP-controlled Legislature only broke even among Republican voters: 31 percent approve, 32 percent disapprove and 37 percent are undecided. Undecided numbers are higher throughout the Legislature's poll, suggesting many voters do not have a clear opinion on the topic.
Patsy Behl of Wabasha, a retired teacher who has volunteered for Democratic candidates, approves of Dayton's job performance but not of the Legislature's. Yet she blames them both for not working together.
"I disapprove of both of them in the fact that they can't get along," she said. "They've got to stop thinking about the parties and think about what's best for the country and our state in particular." As for Dayton, she said, "He did much better than I ever thought he would. I did not vote for him."
Betty Johnson of Mounds View said she believes Dayton and the Legislature were handed a difficult job and have performed well. She is a real estate agent on the road a lot and said she is pleased many road projects are underway.
"I'm happy now we're getting everything fixed," she said.
Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042
FIND THE MINNESOTA poll results in an interactive graphic at startribune.com/polldata.