David Paterson's Poll Problem

posted by Josh Goodman New York Gov. David Paterson's approval rating has plummeted at an almost unbelievable pace. The development, though, says as much ...
by | March 9, 2009

posted by Josh Goodman

New York Gov. David Paterson's approval rating has plummeted at an almost unbelievable pace. The development, though, says as much about polling as it does about politics.

SurveyUSA shows Paterson's approval rating falling from 54% to 30% in less than a month. Marist has him going from 46% to 26% over pretty much the same time period. In a few weeks, the governor has gone from reasonably popular to broadly disliked. What caused this dramatic change in fortunes?

The answer, I think, is that Paterson's decline isn't nearly as dramatic as it appears. One of the weaknesses of polling -- or at least of polling as it's most often presented -- is that it largely ignores intensity of opinion.

Voters didn't learn that much about Paterson in his first year in office. They knew he was a Democrat with a good sense of humor who wasn't Eliot Spitzer. That's enough to get most people to say they like you in New York.

My point is that there never was any depth to Paterson's support. That's why he could drop so far, so fast, without some heinous scandal. You can see that if you look closely at the Marist poll. Throughout his entire tenure, never have more than 10% of New Yorkers described the job he's doing as "excellent." Most who approved said he doing "good."

If you accept that theory, the interesting question is to what extent there's depth to the new opposition to Paterson. Could his approval rating bounce back just as quickly as it dropped?

If Paterson's only problem were the Senate appointment, I'd say yes. But, I think the Senate appointment isn't even the most important reason the governor's numbers are going down (the big drop in his approval came in February, not January). Faced with a massive budget shortfall, Paterson is proposing tax increases that Republicans hate and budget cuts that Democrats hate.

Paterson's real problem now isn't that the public's distaste for him is so deeply embedded. According to Marist, most who disapprove describe the job he's doing as "fair" not "poor."

His problem is that the prognosis going forward is so bleak. If the economy suddenly turned around and Paterson was able to hand out some tax cuts and budget increases, I'm sure his popularity would come back. I'm also pretty sure that the economy isn't going to suddenly turn around.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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