For most folks on the left, consuming political opinion polling data has been a much less enjoyable exercise in 2009 than it has been for the past few cycles.
Call it the soft bigotry of high expectations--when you win everything not nailed down for four consecutive years, you begin to experience a deep sense of dread with every race where a double-digit lead is not present. Being down in a race brings nothing short of absolute panic.
The fact of the matter is that voter pessimism is translating to less than enviable numbers for many Democratic incumbents as we head into the 2010 election cycle. There is an inherent logic to that, of course. If voters are angry with "the guy in the office", you are more likely to feel the wrath if you actually ARE the guy in the office.
Nowhere is this voter antipathy being felt more acutely than among the nation's governors. 2009 polling data for our Democratic governors has been less than robust, as you can see from the following examples (source for polling data is here):
General Election Trial Heats: Democratic Governors
Colorado: Ritter (D) 41, McInnis (R) 48 (PPP, 4/19)
Illinois: Quinn (D) 39, Brady (R) 32 (PPP, 4/26)
Massachusetts: Patrick (D) 40, Mihos (R) 41 (Rasmussen, 6/24)
Michigan*: Cherry (D) 36, Cox (R) 35 (EPIC/MRA, 5/21)
New York: Paterson (D) 37, Giuliani (R) 54 (Marist, 6/25)
Ohio: Strickland (D) 44, Kasich (R) 39 (DKos/R2000, 7/8)
Oklahoma*: Edmondson (D) 38, Fallin (R) 48 (PPP, 5/17)
Oregon*: Kitzhaber (D) 44, Walden (R) 38 (DKos/R2000, 6/24)
Pennsylvania*:: Onorato (D) 29, Corbett (R) 34 (Susquehanna-R, 5/30)
An asterisk (*) denotes an open seat for a retiring Democratic incumbent.
The above list, by the way, does not include Wisconsin, because the two recent polls here (ours and PPP's) had widely disparate results. The Democratic incumbent, Jim Doyle, is either up by several or down by several, depending on your pollster.
It is a roll call of close races and deficits that is sobering, to be sure. It is also fairly understandable.
Check out the following headlines from recent newspapers across the country:
- "Budget ills invite debate over cuts, taxes"--Dayton (OH) Daily News
- "Budget panel told state is headed for cliff"--The Colorado Statesman
- "Rendell plans 13% cut in higher-education budget"--The Philadelphia Inquirer
- "Officials warn: Cuts would be dead-serious for zoos"--The Boston Herald
- "Md. Starts Fiscal Year $700 Million in Red"--The Washington Post
- "Job-training program a victim of budget battle"--The Connecticut Post
...and the list goes on and on.
If you are the chief executive of just about any American state at this moment, there are simply no good choices. At this point, it is down to deciding what tax to raise amid a deluge of wailing and shouting, or deciding which essential program is going to be cut beyond recognition.
There is virtually nothing to be done that it is not going to result in hard feelings and political peril. Such are the times that we live in and they govern in.
Despite that, there are two things to remember about all of this, at least from the standpoint of cold political analysis:
1. This is not solely a Democratic problem
The traditional media, and even a handful of Democratic commentators (the intellectual descendants of Eeyore, in most cases), seem intent on flogging the "2010 will be a GOP comeback year" scenario for all that it is worth.
While it is reasonable to conclude that it is unlikely for Democrats to have a third dominant cycle in a row, a lot of the doomsday scenarios are probably equally overblown.
For one thing, any growing discontent with the Democratic Party, and there certainly seems to be some, has not been countered by an increase in public esteem for the GOP. Instead, when you look at the Daily Kos/Research 2000 State of the Nation Tracking Poll trends from January to the present, you will see that the public opinion of the GOP has trended even lower than that of the Democratic Party:
Furthermore, it is not as if Republican Governors are beloved while their Democratic counterparts are reviled. Many Republican governors are also seeing their lowest job approval ratings in their statehouse tenures. Again, there is nothing surprising in any of this. They are also the ones making ugly decisions, and their esteem in the eyes of voters will suffer predictably.
As you can see below, the GOP is in mearly as much danger of losing governorships as the Democrats are. The absence of endangered incumbents (all of the polls below are open seat races) is owed to the fact that most of the GOP's governors were either the casualties of term limits or (like Pawlenty and Palin) early retirements:
General Election Trial Heats: Republican Governors
Alabama*: Byrne (R) 39, Davis (D) 35 (PPP, 6/5)
California*: Whitman (R) 30, Brown (D) 41 (Lake Research-D, 2/29)
Florida*: McCollum (R) 41, Sink (D) 35 (Mason Dixon, 6/26)
Georgia*: Oxendine (R) 46, Barnes (D) 44 (D-Kos/R2000, 4/30)
Hawaii*: Aiona (R) 36, Abercrombie (D) 45 (D-Kos/R2000, 6/17)
Minnesota*: Coleman (R) 37, Rybak (D) 43 (PPP, 7/8)
An asterisk (*) denotes an open seat for a retiring Democratic incumbent.
And that doesn't even count Nevada Republican Jim Gibbons, who (inexplicably) is planning on running for re-election with a 10% job approval rating.
2. With Time on The Clock, Circumstances Are Very Fluid
The mountain of polling data above, for both parties, should be accompanied with one monstrous caveat--Nobody wins an election in July of the off-year. There is a lot that can change between now and November of 2010.
On balance, that is probably good news for the Democrats. If the economy improves substantially in that time frame, the Democrats are liable to engage in the lions share of the credit-taking. Of course, the converse is also true--if the economy is worse or stagnant, voter patience may well run out. Most analysis suggests that the former is slightly more likely than the latter, with at least some recovery underway by the end of 2010.
Also, polling data right now in many of these races is predicated on voter sentiment towards the incumbent party. The challenger is still, in most cases, an undefined quantity. As challengers become known (via primaries and candidate entrances and exits), the polls are liable to change.
New Jersey may be an instructive example here. In March, Republican nominee Chris Christie had a fifteen-point lead over incumbent Democratic Governor Jon Corzine, according to Rasmussen. Corzine was, without question, being weighted down by grumpiness over the state of his state.
As the campaign has lurched forward, the lead has receded. One theory as to WHY it has receded is this: the challenger is now being defined. It is no longer "the governor whose state is in a budget stalemate over how much to cut" versus "the new guy". It is Jon Corzine versus Chris Christie, who now has more eyes on him as he explains what HE would do if he were in this position. As he does so, his once sizeable lead over the incumbent has shrunk noticeably: down to seven points (46-39) in the latest Rasmussen Poll.
This could be mimicked in places like Colorado, Illinois, Ohio, and Massachusetts.
The bottom line is this: governors, because of their unloved role as hatchet-men in the current political/economic climate, are going to take their lumps. The tenor of the times would seem to demand at least one or two political careers on a stick.
Premature projections of absolute disaster, however, are probably errant.