In MN-8, the poll truth and nothing but the truth

The political class of Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District is abuzz this morning following the KSTP/Survey USA poll showing Republican Stewart Mills 8 points ahead of incumbent Democrat Rep. Rick Nolan just 18 days before the Nov. 4, 2014 election.

I’m not typically a fan of horse race reporting, especially because polling the 8th District accurately is a bit like watch a horse race in a dense cloud of fog. Since this district became competitive for the first time in half a century in 2010, I only recall one poll that turned out to be close to the final result — the 2012 Star Tribune poll. Sometimes, however, polls can discern trends — and that’s where this poll might have something.

If you’re a fan of Mills, you are happy for several reasons, primarily for the complete domination Mills is showing in the cross tabs of this particular KSTP poll. Further, in all the polls taken in the last three election cycles, this is the biggest Republican lead in a MN-8 poll I’ve ever seen. Like, ever. In my life and the life of my father. Since polling started. Chip Cravaack’s 2010 win never showed him leading in the pre-election polls. He led by a few points in some of his 2012 polls, but ultimately lost that race by 9 points.

Additionally, it’s hard to say that the poll is inherently biased because the statewide polls released simultaneously by KSTP show leads by Sen. Al Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton very similar to other recent polls in those races.

PHOTO: Ed Schipul, Flickr Creative Commons license

PHOTO: Ed Schipul, Flickr Creative Commons license

That being said, a DCCC poll (yes, an internal poll, but internal polling that’s got some credibility) showed Nolan with an 11-point lead just over a week two weeks earlier. The same poll had showed a statistical tie back in the summer.

Either the KSTP poll is an outlier, the DCCC poll is an outlier or they both are. I tend to agree with the principles of poll aggregation. And as such, barring further polls that confirm one or the other, we should probably look at this race as being very close and highly volatile.

That’s certainly in keeping with the observable activities of the Mills and Nolan campaigns. Here are a few notes that I believe show a close race:

  • Vast campaign spending, including wall to wall TV commercials and near daily direct mail pieces.
  • The only scheduled debate among all candidates in the race showed Nolan as the feisty, aggressive incumbent and Mills playing it crisp and safe.
  • Republicans up and down the ticket have reinvigorated their pro-mining attacks on the DFL ticket, claiming that DFL incumbents have done too little to advance mining despite their stated, albeit nuanced, support of new mining projects in Northern Minnesota. This had happened months ago but had subsided for other issues. Now it’s back in the daily soundbites and the subject of GOP press releases. As I’ve written before, votes that would actually turn over mining are highly localized. MN-8 is no longer just the “Iron Range” district, and the DFL’s base in Duluth is actually motivated by anti-mining sentiments. I did say, however, that mining could be an issue if the election came down to 2,000 votes or less, and that’s looking quite possible. It might even be likely.
  • Just as in 2010, the real threat to the DFL is low turnout among its base. That’s actually much more dangerous than mining defections in Ely and Hoyt Lakes. One of the classic moves to turn out the base is to bring in a big gun, and that’s exactly what’s happening next Tuesday when Vice President Joe Biden is coming to Hibbing to stump for Nolan.

Here’s what I think we can discern from polling, spending and behavior of candidates put together: the MN-8 race is very close, trending toward Mills, but both parties still believe they can win. Future polls may show an even clearer trend, but the two factors I see as being most important for Nov. 4 are turnout in Duluth (high is good for Nolan, low is good for Mills) and which native son the Brainerd Lakes region, always a swing area, chooses to support this time around. This area was a bellwether for Cravaack in 2010 and Nolan in 2012. I’d be surprised if it failed to predict the winner again in 2014.


This piece was cross-posted with my Up North Report blog at the Star Tribune.


  1. The closest poll I can remember was the 2010 KSTP poll right before the election showing Oberstar with a one point lead. Cravaack ended up winning by one point. In 2012, the KSTP poll right before the election showed Nolan with a two point lead. Nolan ended up winning by nine points. If anything, I have a feeling that the KSTP poll (Nolan/Mills race) is closer to accurate than the DCC internal poll. I don’t think the Democrats even believe their internal poll. The most recent ad making fun of Mills’ hair reeks of desperation and is only something you do if you think you’re going to lose and are desperate to do anything to change the momentum. The ad with Mills on the yacht grilling lobster tails is even more desperate. I laughed hysterically at the ad, but it’s not going to work. With the way it looks right now, I’ll be surprised if Mills wins by less than four or five points.

  2. Independent says

    That poll asked what is the most important issue that will decide how you vote. Out of the options given 9% of those polled chose mining. Even with the district changing, a DFL not fully supporting the industry that provides for thousands of trade union members and miners in their district is probably not a good strategy.

  3. Nolan’s won this race. If he were in real trouble they’d be sending Obama with his teleprompter, not Junior Varsity Joe.

  4. OMG! I had no idea. So THIS is why JV Joe, not B.O., is coming to Hibbing. Boy oh boy, what a mess we DFL’ers have gotten ourselves into.

    (Reuters) 10-19-2014
    President Barack Obama made a rare appearance on the campaign trail on Sunday with a rally to support the Democratic candidate for governor in Maryland, but early departures of crowd members while he spoke underscored his continuing unpopularity.

    With approval levels hovering at record lows, Obama has spent most of his campaign-related efforts this year raising money for struggling Democrats, who risk losing control of the U.S. Senate in the Nov. 4 midterm election.

    Most candidates from his party have been wary of appearing with him during their election races because of his sagging popularity. Not so Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown of Maryland.

    A steady stream of people walked out of the auditorium while he spoke, however, and a heckler interrupted his remarks.

  5. By the way, Nate Silver’s Five Thirty Eight project gives SurveyUSA an A for reliability. Looking at this as the outlier may not be the best approach.

  6. Ranger, How odd that the Reuters writer neglected to mention that it was a packed rally of 8,000. The overflow crowd were in a room near by and Obama made a point to speak to them before he went into the auditorium.

    I’ve been reading letters and comments to local papers from Mills’ supporters and I noticed mines and guns seem to be the top issues. Concerns about SS and Medicare being there for them and their children doesn’t even seem to come up that I recall. Mills is as non-specific and vague as any other Republican legislator or candidate on strengthening SS and Medicare because they have no plans to do any such thing and never have. The GOP has always wanted to make SS and Medicare go away ever since they were created. Their plans are keep chipping away by raising eligibility ages, privatizing or as G W Bush pushed while he was president, SS personal accounts managed by Wall Street, etc, etc. The GOP has fought ACA so hard because they know once previously uninsured families become insured, repealing ACA will be politically lethal. Republicans have had years to come up with their own plans to repeal and replace ACA but nothing so far. They keep telling us that we simply can’t afford ACA, SS, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, more hospitals/clinics for VA services but we absolutely can afford and absolutely must have tax cuts for the very wealthy. Who even buys this hogwash anymore?

    Perhaps there are people in our region that can or could live quite comfortably in their senior years without any SS or Medicare but I’d guess it’s a very small number. From the WSJ 10/16/14, if Social Security benefits were excluded from income, the poverty rate for senior citizens would jump from 14.6% to 52.6%!

    • Independent says

      Mining is important because without it I won’t have a job to continue contributing towards those wonderful Social Security and Medicare benefits. More jobs of all kinds and all industries should be the number one concern right now.

  7. Thanks MZ, a great summary, dealing in facts. I like that.

    Not to mention it confirms other studies which for years have pointed out the biased unreliability of the Red Star (C-) and Humphrey (D-) polls..

  8. If the Democrats felt the need to send the VP to campaign with Nolan, that should be a sign the race is close or even tied. You don’t send the VP in, unless you are worried Republicans might win the race in MN-8, especially in the closing weeks.

    Oberstar routinely won the district with 60%+. As recently as 2008, he won with 67%, before dropping to 46.6% in 2010. In 2004 and 2006, the GOP candidate never got more than 34% of the vote. 2010 was the first election in a long time, where the GOP candidate in MN-8 eclipsed 40%.

    For the GOP to go from 32.2% in 2008 to 46.2% in 2010 is a pretty big shift in the electorate, but it was followed up by 45.5% in 2012. If the KSTP / Survey USA poll shows Mills with 47%, its not a total outlier given the 2010 and 2012 numbers, but it likely represents a ceiling for Mills. I don’t think MN-8 has enough GOP leaning voters to get Mills beyond the high 40’s.

    MN-8 could slowly be trending Republican, but Republicans have only held it once (for two years) post 1947, when Pittenger lost and was replaced by Blatnik. When I was going to school in Duluth, it was just assumed the Republican candidate would get blow out, but perhaps people were wrong?

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