The sluggish economy and stubborn joblessness are being heralded — or lamented, depending on your perspective — as the chief reasons that President Obama will face a tough reelection campaign. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll had Obama getting low marks on his handling of the economy, while Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg has observed that “no incumbent President since [Franklin] Roosevelt has won reelection with greater than 8 percent unemployment.”
Economic malaise is certainly disastrous for an incumbent, particularly when the best policy to rectify the problems (more stimulus) is off the table and a potentially destructive alternative (sharp budget cuts) is coming alive at precisely the wrong time. Things could get far worse before they start getting better.
But there is another indicator of Obama’s prospects, one that may boost his chances in the key swing states that will determine the 2012 electoral majority: the deep and growing unpopularity of the Republican governors and state legislatures.
Last November, the GOP was rejoicing in its sweeping electoral victories. The impressive wins in the House and the big gains in the Senate were, if anything, exceeded by the remarkable victories in the states. Republicans picked up their most seats in decades in legislatures and won key gubernatorial races.
Seven months later, however, things look rather different for the Republicans in governors’ mansions. In Michigan, Rick Snyder has only a 33 percent approval rating, with a hefty disapproval rating of 60 percent. Down in Florida, Rick Scott is at 29 percent approval and 57 percent disapproval. Ohio’s John Kasich has 33 percent and 56 percent, respectively. Wisconsin firebrand Scott Walker is right there at 43 percent approval and 54 percent disapproval.
In two other swing states, Iowa’s Terry Branstad (39 percent approval, 47 percent disapproval) and New Jersey’s Chris Christie (an even 44-44 percent split) are faring only slightly better.
The problems facing America’s governors are in some respects universal, thanks to the combination of a poor economy and state requirements to balance their budgets. Those challenges — with demand for unemployment benefits and Medicaid coverage skyrocketing — doomed Democratic governors in 2010. But things are much worse now. Governors no longer have stimulus money to cushion the blow, and the easy cuts have already been made.
Yet, these challenges are not affecting all governors equally. Certainly, there are Democratic governors in swing states who have their own problems; for example, Bev Perdue in North Carolina is at 35 percent approval and 49 percent disapproval. But in general, swing-state Democratic governors are faring dramatically better than Republican ones. In Minnesota, where Republican former governor Tim Pawlenty left a $5 billion budget deficit, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton nonetheless enjoys a 51 percent approval rating and only 38 percent disapproval. In Missouri, Democrat Jay Nixon is at 48 percent/29 percent. And Montana Democrat Brian Schweitzer tops all governors with 60 percent approval.
Why the partisan disparity? Republican governors such as Kasich, Scott and Walker — usually with the avid support of GOP-dominated legislatures — have deployed combative policies and politics, promoting confrontation and eschewing compromise, cutting benefits for the poor and middle class while adding tax breaks for the rich, and in many cases trying to eliminate or at least cripple collective bargaining by public employees. Those tactics have energized the Democratic base, certainly, but even more significant, they have turned off independent voters.
Things are likely to get worse for Republican governors. Raising taxes is not an option, and the only areas left for meaningful budget reductions are education, Medicaid and prisons. At the national level, the Republican House is intent on further reducing states’ margin for error with dramatic cuts on the table for Medicaid, including its largest components: long-term care for the elderly and aid for the most seriously disabled. Even before the Medicaid stimulus money ran out, states including Arizona and Indiana were eliminating Medicaid-paid organ transplants and denying some life-saving treatments; those awful options will become more widespread. And many Republican governors who try to change their messages and policies will face the wrath of their tea party bases.
In swing states, any GOP presidential candidate will have to convince voters that he or she has the best plan to improve the economy. The only problem is that every Republican contender supports the same types of economic policies that have driven GOP governors into a ditch. According to the Post-ABC poll, Mitt Romney is the only candidate tied with Obama at the moment, but he’ll have to find a way to sell his message of private-sector experience while explaining away the failures of businessmen such as Florida’s Scott and Michigan’s Snyder.
Of course, if the economy continues to falter, Obama will have plenty to explain himself. And it remains true that, despite their struggles, many GOP governors will be able to help their party’s presidential nominee by mobilizing their statewide organizations.
Nonetheless, the huge Republican victories in the states in 2010, along with the immense hubris they brought to the winning governors, has had a serious down side, there to be exploited to the hilt by Obama’s reelection campaign.
Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for Roll Call. He is a co-author of “The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track.”