Governors struggling toward 2014

If misery loves company, the recent winter meeting of the National Governors Association might have been a love fest. But the misery could escalate to despair and depression by the group’s next get-together in July.

There are a lot of governors these days with terrible numbers in the polls. Recent surveys have found the governors of Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Texas have registered bad or trending worse results in post-election polls. Some of these numbers are apocalyptic, such as in Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Corbett’s job performance ratings “are the lowest for a sitting governor in the history of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll.” Only 26 percent of registered voters think he is doing an excellent or good job. In Rhode Island, just 26 percent approve of Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s job performance. The two states are pretty close — perhaps the two governors can get together this spring and commiserate.

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What is going on? It would be easy to say that these are tough times for states, that things are headed in the wrong direction too often, leaving governors as the fall guy. But this doesn’t seem to fly when you see that a number of other governors are registering fine, even improved, numbers in each of their own state’s polls. Look at Chris Christie — he’s a giant in New Jersey polls. Old faithful Terry Branstad (a client of mine) in Iowa is the Energizer Bunny that just keeps on keeping on, with consistently high job approval. And of course there’s New York’s ever-popular Andrew Cuomo. Even the indefatigable Jerry Brown just recorded his best job-approval rating in a long time in California’s respected Field Poll.

Even lesser-known governors in states like Alaska (Sean Parnell), Arkansas (Mike Beebe), Minnesota (Mark Dayton), Nevada (Brian Sandoval), New Mexico (Susana Martinez), Oklahoma (Mary Fallin) and Wyoming (Matt Mead) are getting it done in the polling department. (There may be other popular governors, too, that I missed when looking for recent polls.) So what is up with the laggards?

There might not be a single, simple explanation. Some would look to partisanship and the hard-fought battles leading up to the recent November election as a factor. And partisan enmity could be a contributing element in some states. But taking the whole of the evidence into account, it just doesn’t seem like a solid explanation. The rain seems to be falling on governors from both parties.

More light could also be shed by idiosyncratic circumstances going back to the last gubernatorial elections: for example, Rhode Island’s Chafee was elected as an independent in a multi-candidate race in which he got less than majority support. Perhaps those who voted for other candidates never achieved a comfort level with their new governor. Other governors have made controversial proposals on sensitive financial issues. Governors losing ground like Rick Perry in Texas and Bobby Jindal in Louisiana might simply be spending too much time in other states running for president and preening for the national TV cameras to adequately tend to their gardens at home.

Several of the struggling governors are starting to practice what Jerry Brown once labeled canoeing politics — paddling a little left, then right. Florida’s Rick Scott has thrown several sops to the left recently, and at least one or two polls suggest that it might have improved his numbers. But if his initiatives row left too often, Scott could lose some of his strength on the right and even attract primary opposition. There are already whispers of this. In Michigan, Rick Snyder seems committed to a different path, doubling down on a straight-ahead conservative agenda.

It’s a long time to Election Day, and the struggling governors have plenty of opportunities for reversal of fortune. In moments of discouragement, they can think of President Obama’s 2011-2012 resurrection for inspiration.

Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.