Tracking the Recession: State Leaders Suffer Political backlash

By: - June 16, 2009 12:00 am

A recession is no time for governors and state legislators to win a popularity contest with voters. There’s not much upside to slashing programs and services and raising taxes, no matter which party you are in or how many votes you got in the last election.

So it’s no surprise to see that a new poll shows that New York voters scorn Gov. David Paterson (D). Only two in 10 New York residents said they have a favorable view of Paterson, and seven in 10 said he did not deserve to be elected next year.

Neighboring New Jersey residents don’t like their governor either, according to another new poll. Fifty six percent of voters say Democrat Jon Corzine should not be re-elected this year, the lowest job approval ratings he has ever received.

In California, the latest Field Poll reports that only 14 percent of state voters approve of the job the state legislature is doing, which is the poorest rating of the California General Assembly since the poll started measuring lawmakers’ job performance in 1983.

“The public seems to reward politicians for a strong economy and hold them accountable when the economy is struggling,” said Peter Enns, an assistant professor of government at Cornell University, which conducted the Paterson poll with The New York Times and NY1 News.

Paterson has been governor for only 14 months. Ironically, the man he replaced, Eliot Spitzer (D), has a slightly higher approval rating, even though he resigned in disgrace after admitting he had been using a prostitution ring.

Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D), the poll suggests, may be one of the political winners from the recession. From the start of the Wall Street collapse last fall, Cuomo has tackled some of the rogues of the financial crisis: AIG executives who got giant bonuses, pay- to- play middlemen in state pension funds, deceptive debt collectors and fraudulent foreclosure rescue companies, among others. New Yorkers have taken note of Cuomo’s activities, with 56 percent of New Yorkers saying they have a favorable view of him.

But nearly half of New York residents disapprove of the way the state Legislature is doing its job. The poll was completed before state Republicans took over the state Senate last week.

Corzine’s GOP opponent, former federal prosecutor Christopher Christie, leads Corzine by 10 percentage points among likely voters, according to the poll by Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “The biggest thing Corzine needs is a little improvement of the economy – a factor over which he has almost no control,” said Clay Richards, assistant director of the institute.

Thirty-seven states elect governors next year, and the blame-the-governor pattern holds true in many of them.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is viewed negatively by most California voters, according to the Field Poll. Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) have dropped in popularity. In all three states, the governors and state lawmakers have had to make deep cuts and propose tax increases.

Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, said he has been surprised by the depth of voter anger this year. California’s Senate and Assembly seats are up for election next year, but DiCamillo said he does not see “an immediate prospect for a rebound” in lawmakers’ status among voters.

Usually, DiCamillo said, a governor’s job approval rating is higher than a legislator’s because a majority of people in the governor’s political party say he is doing a good job. Not so this year.

“Schwarzenegger is unique,” DiCamillo said. “His negative ratings are similar across the board. Democrats and Republicans both have pretty much bailed on the governor for different reasons. To me, that is the unusual aspect. Gov. Schwarzenegger said early in his term that he wanted get to a post partisan era. I think he’s achieved that because both see him the same way.”

Schwarzenegger is not a candidate for re-election next year, but in the states where incumbents are seeking another term, the job approval ratings are central to their chances.

>In Ohio, Republicans are reminding voters that Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland promised in 2006 to “turn around” the state but has presided over the loss of 293,000 jobs since taking office.

>Strickland did not cause the national recession, but that won’t stop whoever wins the GOP nomination for governor from linking the incumbent to the decline in the state’s economy. Look for Democrats to adopt the same tack against GOP incumbents in other states.

“The state of the economy is an easy heuristic to evaluate politicians – even if they have limited abilities to influence economic conditions,” Enns said.

Some governors, such as Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell (R), have managed to stay popular with voters despite trimming budgets. Rell, notably, has opposed tax increases.

The economic downturn has not affected President Obama’s job approval ratings  ; six in 10 Americans say he is doing a good job. Beyond Obama’s personal attributes, one explanation for his popularity is that voters see Obama as taking action on the economy, softening the blows of the Wall Street collapse last fall, DiCamillo said. But he noted that a president is different from a governor, in part, because the commander-in-chief can print money and go into debt to try to resolve a financial crisis.

California, like every state, is required by law to balance its budget, so the political decisions are tougher for state leaders, as many may learn on Nov. 2, 2010.

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Stephen Fehr

Stephen Fehr is a senior officer with Pew’s government performance portfolio. He is a lead writer on many of the products generated by the portfolio, specializing in state and local fiscal health.