It appears the tide may have turned on copper-nickel mining in Minnesota, and that’s going to have ramifications in both the DFL primary and in the general election this fall. As we reported last week, a new sampling of public opinion by FabrizioWard, a GOP-leaning polling firm, has found growing opposition to sulfide-based copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters.
The poll was commissioned by the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, so some will inevitably dismiss the results— but they do so at the risk of misunderstanding the very real implications of the latest survey results.
I agree that the way you ask a question can influence an answer, which is why I always take surveys commissioned by any advocacy group with at least a modest grain of salt. The reason this latest poll is important, however, is because the polling firm went back a year later and asked the same key questions to a new random sample of Minnesota residents. And when you see statewide opposition to sulfide mining near the BWCAW (asked in exactly the same way) jump from 59 percent to 70 percent in a year, it can’t be denied that public opinion on this question is changing. We can argue about whether the true opposition is 60 percent or 80 percent, but however you dice it, there’s no question that opposition is growing and that it appears a very solid majority of Minnesotans are opposed.
At the same time, the intensity of opposition is growing, from the 39 percent who expressed strong opposition in 2017, to 52 percent today. People who strongly oppose something are the ones who vote based on a candidate’s position on that something, so this number matters.
Yet this tells only part of the story. What I found most fascinating was the partisan breakdown revealed by the poll. Across the state, the survey found that fully 91 percent of self-identified DFLers are opposed to sulfide mines near the Boundary Waters. Even within the Eighth Congressional District, 77 percent of DFLers said they were opposed to sulfide mining near the wilderness, and 61 percent indicated strong opposition.
There are a couple ramifications from this kind of sentiment. Number one, any DFLer who is seen as strongly supporting the Twin Metals project, near Ely, is likely to face an uphill battle in any party endorsement fight over the Eighth District seat. There’s a reason that Nolan bowed out three days after the precinct caucuses— challenger Leah Phifer had done remarkably well on caucus night, even against a sitting member of Congress. As this latest polling suggests, Nolan’s aggressive actions to advance the Twin Metals project had left him far out on a political limb, particularly with his own party’s base where opposition to a project like Twin Metals is vehement. Phifer, who hasn’t come out in opposition to sulfide mining (at least at this point) mainly faulted Nolan for trying to short-circuit the process.
Even with an expected Democratic surge in this fall’s election, Nolan was in trouble and he almost certainly knew it.
For those who still doubt the changing nature of the sentiment on this issue, consider the caucus results in the gubernatorial race, where Rebecca Otto, the only DFLer in the race to announce her firm opposition to sulfide mining, won handily in the Eighth District. In the Third Senate District, which encompasses Koochiching, northern St. Louis, Lake, and Cook counties, Otto won more votes in the caucus night straw poll than the five other DFL candidates combined.
And before you dismiss those results as representing just a handful of DFLers, it’s worth noting that the DFL saw record caucus turnout across the state, with nearly 4,000 DFLers turning out in the Eighth. Besides, the people who turn out at the caucuses are often the same people who donate money, door knock, and engage in the ground-level grunt work of the campaign. In the DFL, those folks are feeling very passionate in their opposition to sulfide mining right now.
Some folks may not care about any of this, but believe me when I tell you that the politicians do. There’s a reason the state’s U.S. Senators have yet to introduce their own versions of some of Nolan’s pro-sulfide mining legislation. They can do the math, and they will sit up and take notice of the data included in this poll.
And before you suggest that opposition to sulfide mining near the BW is confined to DFLers, the survey found that 69 percent of independents and even a plurality of 45 percent of Republicans oppose it as well. From a political standpoint, these numbers are toxic.
These results also suggest that the public isn’t buying the constant refrain that we hear from supporters of sulfide mining— namely that opponents reject all forms of mining, even taconite.
Polls released within the last year show continued strong support in Minnesota for the taconite industry— and that’s true across the political spectrum. What this shows is that as people learn more about the issue, they are recognizing the higher level of risk posed by sulfide mining, and its potential to impact prized Minnesota resources, like clean water in the North Country.
Claims that opposition to sulfide mining represents an attack on the Iron Range’s way of life are simply hyperbolic. The Iron Range’s way of life centers on taconite mining, and support for that industry remains strong in Minnesota.
As for copper-nickel mining, it appears Minnesotans are increasingly skeptical.