Saturday, July 19, 2014
Public Policy Polling (PPP) released its poll in Pennsylvania fairly recently. Not really surprising numbers but a bit disappointing for the Republican Party. Republican incumbent Tom Corbett has an abysmal approval rating with Pennsylvanians. Corbett's approval rating is 27% favorable and 58% unfavorable leading to an almost unbelievable, -31. Because of his unbelievable low favorability ratings, he is trailing Democratic nominee Tom Wolf by 25 points. Wolf's favorability is 47/20 showing a net favorability of 27 points. One has to wonder how much of this favorability is just because he is simply not Tom Corbett.
In the last poll prior to the November election in 2010 posted on October 31, 2010, Corbett had a net favorability of +19. He led Dan Onorato in the poll 52-45. This was fairly similar to the final electoral results of Corbett: 54.4% - Onorato: 45.6%. By January of 2011, Corbett's favorability had fallen slightly to +12. Three months later, Corbett's favorability had fallen, with a net favorability of -10. In that same poll, PPP found that Onorato led in a hypothetical re-match by 5 points, 49-44. This raises two questions. How did Corbett win the election and why did his popularity go away so quickly?
He was elected as Attorney General of Pennsylvania in 2004, defeating his Democratic opponent by about 2 points. Corbett won 50.4% of the vote. He was re-elected as Attorney General in 2008 with 52% of the vote. By the first time Public Policy Polling released its first poll on the gubernatorial election in April of 2010, Corbett's favorability was 27/20 showing a majority of voters in Pennsylvania did not have an opinion of Corbett. About two weeks prior to that poll, Corbett had filed a lawsuit against the mandates of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) taking place in Pennsylvania. According to a poll released on April 7, 2010, 49% of Pennsylvanians opposed the ACA and 49% agreed with the statement that Republicans should work to repeal the ACA. This furor combined with the massive unpopularity of Democratic incumbent Ed Rendell (35/51) led to Corbett leading all challengers in the gubernatorial polls by an average of 15 points. This is the popular narrative around the popularity of Corbett. The idea is that the unpopularity of the ACA and Democratic incumbent led to Corbett and other unpopular Republicans to be able to seize opportunities that otherwise would have been closed to them.
One theory that has been pervasive in political science, recently, is that politics are increasingly presidential, despite what Tip O'Neil said. President Obama's approval rating in the poll in late October of 2010 was 40/54 in Pennsylvania. By January, President Obama's favorability was now at 46/49. In April of 2011, Obama's favorability had actually fallen, showing closer to his marks in October of 2010, 42/52. The presidential political model does not help explain Corbett's fall. Since Corbett is a Republican, he should, theoretically, be helped by President Obama's favorability declining.
The next theory is the theory that Corbett lost his base. While this has some explanatory value, it does not explain why he lost his base. In October of 2010, Corbett had a 80/10 favorability with Republicans. While it did fall slightly to 64/10 in January of 2011, it fell even more by April of 2011 to 60/22. What is more helpful, though, is that Corbett lost support among Independents and Democrats going from a +20 approval rating from Independents in October of 2010 all the way down to -7 in April of 2011. With Democrats, while he was never popular (-32 in October of 2010) he became more unpopular by April, falling to -45. That certainly helps to explain where Corbett lost his support but not necessarily why.
One possible explanation to this is the reliance on people having to self-identify their political party and the winner's bias (Note: not a scientific or scholarly term). The winner's bias is a bias in polling and social surveys when people self-identify their political party, affiliation, or ideology and they tend to state that they are part of the winning side. Essentially, after 2008, more people started identifying as members of the Democratic Party, even though they are not really a member of that political party. In 2010, after the TEA Party wave, there was an increase in voters identifying as Republican. After the GOP made great wins in Pennsylvania in 2010, the assumption follows that more people began to identify as Republican, even if they weren't Republican to begin with. It's possible that this helps to explain why Corbett's net favorability among Republicans fell by 16 points before he took office in 2011.
Maybe that helps to explain why Corbett's popularity declined among Republicans. How about Democrats and Independents? One of the first things Corbett did when he was elected into office was a budget that would decrease spending by 3%. One of the ways that he did this was to cutting the state-supported higher education spending by 50%. This represented a cut of $525 million. Cutting spending in education is never popular. In February of 2011, Corbett repealed a policy that regulated hydraulic fracking. The Pennsylvania Democratic Party called it a payoff which seems like it resonated with voters.
While we are looking are for an explanation to why Tom Corbett lost favorability so quickly, perhaps, we have been too quick to nationalize the approval ratings and neglected to look at what the governor did while he was in office. While there is not sufficient polling data to show what policies voters found most offensive, a look at the job done by the governor helps to explain why the Governor lost support so quickly.