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How John Hickenlooper can help President Obama

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Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) could be the most important swing-state governor of the 2012 election.

The reason: The first-term governor is popular — extremely popular — and that could bode well for President Obama in what is increasingly looking like a pivotal state in the 2012 election. In addition, Hickenlooper is one of few swing-state governors with legitimate national ambitions right now.

That makes the 2012 election an invaluable time for him to get his name out there and build a base of support for a potential future run for president.

And that could play into Obama’s hands in a tough state — that is, if Hickenlooper embraces the president.

President Obama makes a statement from the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, Colo., on Sunday, July 22, 2012. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is at left. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

We’ve written before on this blog about whether Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s (R) low approval ratings could drag down Mitt Romney in three critical swing states. (All three governors, its worth noting, seem to have recovered to some degree in recent months.)

And we should note that there is valid disagreement over how much governors matter in their home state.

But in Colorado — perhaps one of the most valuable swing states — Democrats have a bona fide rising star as their governor.

A new New York Times/CBS News/Quinnipiac poll this week showed that, even as Obama trailed Romney in the Rocky Mountain State and had just a 44 percent approval rating, Hickenlooper remains strikingly popular, with 66 percent approving of his job performance and just 18 percent disapproving.

Even among Republicans, his approval rating (51 percent) is almost twice as high as the percentage that disapprove of him (27 percent).

What gives? Why in an era of middling popularity ratings (at best) for most state executives is Hickenlooper soaring?

It’s not just because the state recently experienced the tragedy in Aurora, pushing Hickenlooper into an above-partisan role as the comforter-in-chief; Hickenlooper’s approval in a bipartisan poll in January was 67 percent positive and just 19 percent negative — nearly identical to the Q poll numbers.

And it’s not just a honeymoon thing, either. Despite being in the governor’s seat for just 19 months, he was already a well-known figure as the two-term mayor of Denver — a metro area that includes more than three million of the state’s five million people.

“As mayor of Denver, he was in the media in 70 percent of the homes in Colorado, so it’s not a new relationship with voters,” said Colorado Democratic consultant Steve Welchert. “He’s on-board now, but if he steps out in the fall and makes the argument that sticking with Obama is good for Colorado and good for America, it will resonate beyond the city limits.”

Hickenlooper’s numbers are stunning in a swing state, rivaled only by outgoing New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch (D), who has generally earned the approval of around 70 percent of New Hampshire voters.

The difference between Hickenlooper and Lynch, though, is that Lynch is totally content to stay away from national politics. In addition, New Hampshire is a significantly smaller electoral vote prize (4) than Colorado (9), and Obama appears to be in better shape there.

On the GOP side, the only analogue to Hickenlooper is Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who remains popular — though less so than Hickenlooper — in another very important state in the presidential election this fall.

McDonnell had even been mentioned as a potential running mate for Romney, but a run-in earlier this year with his state legislature over “transvaginal ultrasounds” seems to have stalled his upward mobility and hurt his approval rating slightly. The Q poll this week showed him earning the approval of 52 percent of Virginians compared to 29 percent who disapprove.

He’ll still be a valuable surrogate and popular governor, but he’s not on Hickenlooper’s level right now.

The only problem for Hickenlooper is that much of the reputation he’s built has been that of a nonpartisan politician. Even in the aftermath of the tragedy in Aurora, for example, Hickenlooper declined to push for increased gun control measures.

By stepping forward for Obama, he risks hurting that reputation and looking like a partisan.

“Gov. Hickenlooper has been popular in part because he doesn’t try to tell the public to eat their vegetables — that is, telling them that he knows better than they do,” said former Colorado Republican National Committeeman Mark Hillman. “I’m sure he will do what’s expected of a Democrat governor for a Democrat president, but I just don’t see swing voters basing their decision on Hick’s obligatory stumping.”

On the other hand, that nonpartisan billing could be beneficial for Obama, and independent Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli said Hickenlooper could be a compelling surrogate for Obama if he does stick his neck out.

“He is not particularly influential with Democrats, but at the end he could have influence with independent voters and moderate Republicans who may be cross-pressured in preferring Romney on economics but worried about his social positions,” Ciruli said.

(The Q poll showed Hickenlooper earning the approval of 72 percent of independents, compared to just 15 percent disapproval.)

In the end, if he wants a place on the national stage in the coming years, it’s something he should — and probably will — have to do.

The question then is whether he can lend a little political capital to Obama and actually move some numbers.

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