Republican Governors Remarkably Unpopular

Are the new crop of GOP governors too conservative?

Nate Silver does some correlation plots of governor ideology versus constituent ideology. Given the admitted crudeness of the methodology, I’m not sure the results are especially useful. His chart of approval ratings, however, is pretty straightforward:

This appears to be sorted based on the delta between approval and disapproval ratings. Most of those on the good side of the curve are Democrats and most of those at the bottom are Republicans. Silver attributes this to the Republicans being too ideologically extreme for their constituencies:

The unsurprising result is that Republicans now have a group of extremely unpopular governors — particularly Mr. Scott of Florida, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John R. Kasich of Ohio and Paul R. LePage of Maine, all of whom have disapproval ratings exceeding 50 percent. Other Republican governors in crucial swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania also have below-average ratings.

Republicans do have a couple of bright spots — especially Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Bob McDonnell of Virginia — who remain quite popular and should have a long political future. But other Republican governors who are linked to national politics, like Rick Perry of Texas and Chris Christie of New Jersey, are not especially popular in their home states.

The problem here is that it’s impossible to draw useful conclusions given just three variables (party ID, ratings, and ideological disparity) and I simply don’t know enough about the governors and their states to make informed alternative assessments.

Obviously, Scott Walker, Rick Scott, and John Kasich have been in the news because of battles with their legislatures and/or labor unions. In Walker’s case, at least, this seems to have been mostly an ideological showdown, where breaking the union was more important than the short-term budget crisis ostensibly at the heart of the dispute. At least in the short term, Walker seems to have lost the PR battle on that one, with the teachers unions coming across as more sympathetic. But is that a function of Walker being too ideological? Or simply one of ruthless management?

There’s just not enough information here. Off the top of my head, what is the unemployment rate in these states? Have the governors been forced into unpopular budget cuts and/or tax increases to deal with fiscal crises largely out of their control? How long have each of these people been in office? What’s the historic approval rating of governors in these states? What’s the partisan makeup of the electorate in each state? How pleasant is the personality and management style of each of these governors?

I’m not even sure how to go about operationalizing the data for these things, much less how to comparatively weigh them. Nor am I inclined to attempt to do any of this for the purposes of a blog post.

My point isn’t to disparage Silver’s effort here but simply to point out that approval ratings are about much more than ideology. People often like politicians they disagree with and think politicians who are very similar to them ideologically are jerks or simply doing a bad job. Look at the wild swings in the approval ratings of George W. Bush; neither his ideology nor that of the electorate fluctuated nearly as wildly as his job approval.

I should add that I’m inclined to think Silver’s supposition is right. Several of the new crop of Republican governors rode in to office on the Tea Party wave and may in fact be too ideological for the taste of the broader public. But that’s a very hard conclusion to draw across-the-board for 50 states with widely varying conditions.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Michael says:

    Because they are actually trying to fix their states unlike Democrat governors who only care about their poll numbers.

  2. sam says:

    “But is that a function of Walker being too ideological? Or simply one of ruthless management?”

    Uh, the rap might be that the two are the same. I suspect that the problems these Republican guvs are having stems from overreading their mandates (or not being more truthful with the electorate about their intentions).

  3. Rob in CT says:

    To some extent, a governor pushing through *specific* cuts is going to take a popularity hit. Loudly calling for vague, unspecified cuts tends to be popular. Actually cutting things, on the other hand, has a political price tag. Not only does the constituency being cut fight back, but some (likely low-info) voters were probably surprised.

    To get local:

    Gov. Malloy (D)’s low rating here in CT. He won a very narrow election, so I doubt his approval rating was ever high. He put together a spending cut/tax increase deal that was 50/50, but required employee union approval to get the cuts. The unions balked (actually, their rules for modifying contracts were pretty wacked: they needed 80% of the vote, and only got 56% – majority approval of the deal, but not enough). Now the unions are scrambling to: a) change their rules (done); and b) resurrect the deal (we’ll see). Meanwhile, Malloy is sending out layoff notices, repeatedly stating that ~6500 state employees are going to lose their jobs. DMV offices will close, etc.

    So GOP-leaning voters probably disliked the outline of the deal to begin with (50/50 taxes/cuts). Then the union balked, while the tax increases went in. Oof. Egg on Malloy’s face (he obviously trusted the union leaders who told him it would go through). Now Malloy is laying off state employees, which might get him *some* credit with GOP-leaning voters, but probably not much, whereas it’s probably pissing off the Dem base (not me, though. I think he’s doing what he must).

  4. The problem here is that it’s impossible to draw useful conclusions given just three variables (party ID, ratings, and ideological disparity) and I simply don’t know enough about the governors and their states to make informed alternative assessments.

    Well, one thing I know is that there’s 19 more governors out there than what’s on this list. So it seems really stupid to draw conclusions from it when the picture could change completely once those are included.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: An interesting point. It’s not clear from his discussion how he selected which governors to include in this list. Based on context, it would make sense to exclude those elected in 2008 or before–but not all of these governors were.

  6. PJ says:

    @James Joyner: It is, look at the image, those not included hasn’t been polled since April 1st.

  7. @PJ:

    Which could mean they’re more popular governors since no one feels it was worth the time to find out what their approval rating was.

  8. James Joyner says:

    ‘@PJ: You’re right! I was looking at the discussion, not the graphic, for an explanation. And @Stormy Dragon makes a good point, then. It’s quite possible that those not polled are quite popular and that there’s therefore no reason to bother polling.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    Unless my eyes mistake me one of the governors who popularity hasn’t been polled since April is Illinois’s Gov. Pat Quinn. March polls show him 2:1 unfavorable to favorable so I think I can say with some confidence that if he hasn’t been polled since April it’s not because he’s popular.

  10. PJ says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Problem here is that Silver isn’t saying that all Republican governors are unpopular, that’s not his point, so the headline here is wrong.

    His point is that there aren’t any moderate republican governors and that there are a number of ideologically conservative governors who get bad approval ratings in moderate or liberal states. Which really isn’t a surprise.

    And of the 19 states not included:
    12 are red states with republican governors;
    Alabama, Alaska. Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota. Utah, and Wyoming
    6 are blue states, with democratic governors;
    Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Vermont
    1 is a red state with a democratic governor;

    I’m not sure how including these would have changed anything. The Republican governors not included are all from red states.

  11. @James Joyner:

    For the record, the missing 19 are 12 Republicans, 6 Democrats, and 1 Independent. So if my intuition that they lack of polling indicates more universal popularity is correct, adding a more heavily Republican group near the top of that list would greatly undermine the argument that one party is more popular than the other.

    On the other hand, it could just mean they’re states the national media doesn’t care about and they would be spread evenly through the whole list.

    Although I would notice that a lot of the missing states tend to be seen as ones that are more reliably partisan (e.g. Oklahoma, Idaho, Utah, Vermont, etc.).

  12. michael reynolds says:

    @Dave Schuler: Any word yet on when he’ll be caught committing a felony and arrested?

  13. @PJ:

    Rhode Island’s governor isn’t a democrat. Lincoln Chafee is an independent who previously served as a Republican in congress.

  14. PJ says:

    @Stormy Dragon: You’re right, an error, even if it is a minor one. Lincoln Chafee is an independent. Personally I’d argue that error is like identifying Bernie Sanders as a democrat. 😉

    But it doesn’t change the fact that those republican governors not included would all be ideologically conservative from conservative states, and thus not important for Silver’s point (as I see it).

  15. PJ says:

    @Stormy Dragon: You’re arguing against what Joyner wrote, not against what Silver wrote.

  16. @PJ:

    Personally I’d argue that error is like identifying Bernie Sanders as a democrat.

    Not really, it’d be more like identifying Bernie Sanders as a Republican. Chafee isn’t just an independent; he’s an independent who was a Republican for most of his career, so if you’re going to put him in one of the two major parties, you picked the wrong one.

  17. mantis says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Any word yet on when he’ll be caught committing a felony and arrested?

    I may be wrong, but Quinn may break the trend of Illinois governors retiring to the big house.

  18. PJ says:

    @Stormy Dragon: He’s an independent who has been a republican for most of his his life and ended up leaving the party in 2007 and voting for Obama in 2008. But you’re right, I made a mistake by labeling him as a democrat.

    Still doesn’t change the main issue here though.

  19. Wayne says:

    Are these some of those polls that use 25% Republican samples size or samples from big cities only?

  20. Curtis says:

    Mr. Joyner, I think you are being quite unfair here in analyzing Mr. Silver’s work.

    The conclusion you quote is based on the regression lines earlier in the piece. And you are criticizing him based on the chart which is separate from this conclusion.

    He has noticed a dramatic shift in the change of the slope of the regression line for Republicans only. Here is what I would do to see his point: put the line for the graph from 2009 onto the graph from 2011 for Republicans. That represents roughly the ideological change in governors that came about based on the 2010 elections. His theory is that the governors who vary wildly from the old regression line are the ones who are most out of step ideologically with their states, and that these are the same guys who will be the most unpopular. The governors close to the line would be more closely matched to their states, and be more popular.

    What I wish he had included to make this clearer is which dots were which governors. Some of them he explains in the text, but most he does not. I’d also be interested in the R-squared’s of the regressions to know just how much explanatory power the model claims. As you indicate, there are plenty of other variables which seem important, so I’d think it would be relatively low.

    But unless you are addressing something else that could cause the sharp change in the slope of the regression lines, then you really aren’t engaging his work at all.

  21. Jib says:

    Well it is easy to get the unemployment rate by states (even if the link is ugly)-

    My guess is you would need to look at what the unemployment rate has done the last 2 years, what the trend is. I think it is the trend that matters for popularity. For example Reagan was re-elected in 1984 the unemployment rate was the same as when Carter lost re-election in 1980. But the trend for Reagan was that it was going down and for Carter is was rising.

    So to take a few examples:

    In Florida the unemployment rate is the same as 2 years ago but it rose to 12% and have come back down to 10.6% in the last 2 years. Short term trend would be favorable to Scott but the overall trend was not good until recently.

    Ohio has dropped 2% in the last 2 years, 10. 6% to 8.6% which should be good news for Kasich. Imagine how bad his ratings would be if unemployment has risen.

    Maine’s unemployment rate is down over to 7.7% from 8.3% and they are doing better than the nation s LePage is not being affected by bad unemployment numbers.

    Washington’s unemployment rate has declined from 10% to 9.1% which should benefit Gregoire but appears to not have.

    Texas’s unemployment rate is unchanged over the last 2 years. Perry may or may not be taking a hit for not doing enough but Texas seems to be doing better than the rest of the nation economically.

    I live in Washington state and I can tell you Gregoire is unpopular because of the cuts she has made.Plus she was never that popular to begin with. The rest you can draw your own conclusions.

    We will find out in 2012 if unpopular govs translates into election results in the house and senate. Plus we will have the impact of cutting spending / raising taxes at the federal level to motivate people. Sure looks like 2012 will be an interesting election.

  22. James Joyner says:

    @Curtis: The intro mentions the correlation analysis, which I don’t find all that interesting. The post addresses the second half of Silver’s analysis.