Politics

New Governors Time Their Battles

Unpopular governors have good chances of winning re-election -- as long as they push their most controversial policies early on.
by | May 2011

Alot of new governors were elected last year -- 28, in fact -- and right out of the gate, many are hurting in the polls. Governors in several states, including Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Rhode Island and Wisconsin, have seen their approval ratings dip into the low 40s and even 30s.

Don’t count them out, however. A difficult first year doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll have a hard time winning re-election.

Governors can make themselves unpopular in a number of ways -- raising taxes, for instance, or doing the reverse and drawing up austere budgets that cut spending dramatically -- but they don’t want to stay unpopular for too long. "It affects the ability of governors to get things done," says Justin Phillips, a Columbia University political scientist. "As governors’ popularity declines, they end up narrowing their legislative agendas."

But those who push controversial agenda items in their first year have several years to recover before having to worry about re-election. "Does it make sense to go for the big controversial stuff early on?" Phillips asks. "The answer to that question is yes."

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, for example, saw his numbers decline dramatically during his first year in office as he pushed unpopular items such as the leasing of a toll road and changes to policy regarding daylight saving time. But he ended up winning re-election handily and has been talked up as potential presidential timber. "He certainly went for everything on his agenda all at once, up front," says Ed Feigenbaum, editor of Indiana Legislative Insight, a capitol newsletter. "He plunged in, and he wasn’t going to let what some people saw as the political realities stop him from at least proposing things that he wanted."

Of course, not every governor who loses political traction can regain it. Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that comebacks may prove particularly tough for governors who "may have misread their mandates, losing Reagan Democrats and firing up the union base along the way," such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Ohio’s John Kasich.

It’s one thing to temporarily lose the support of independents due to economic circumstances that might easily change, Cain says. "But policy overreaches affect the partisan bases that, once antagonized and mobilized, work against the public official until he or she is defeated," he says. "It is not always the case that buyer’s remorse wears away quickly or that grudges do not carry over several years."

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