A recent Quinnipiac poll showing Gov. Dannel P. Malloy trailing GOP frontrunner Tom Foley 40-43 percent in the 2014 race for governor has Connecticut’s political class chattering about the incumbent’s weakness.
But this very early poll, while great fodder for political junkies to chew on during the summer doldrums, probably isn’t as earth-shattering as everyone thinks it is.
First off, there’s not much here that’s new. Gov. Malloy has never been popular; his approval ratings have rarely ever climbed out of the mid-40s and his re-election chances have always seemed somewhat shaky. The reasons for that are myriad: Malloy isn’t exactly Mr. Charm, his policies and blunt approach have managed to alienate a lot of interest groups from teachers to state employee unions to good government watchdogs; He’s raised taxes, and the economy is still in the worst slump we’ve endured since the glitz of the 1980s crashed into the misery of the early 1990s. At first glance, this might be a sign that the governor’s re-election is in dire shape.
In fact, he’s in essentially the same position as he was when he was elected in 2010. A Quinnipiac poll taken only a few days before the election in November, 2010 showed Malloy trailing Foley 45-48 percent, another three-point gap. He trailed Foley among independents 33-55 percent in 2010, while in 2013 he trails Foley among independents 28-49 percent. That’s roughly 20 percentage points in both cases. Malloy currently has a 46 percent favorable rating, while in 2010 he had a 44 percent favorable rating.
There are a few differences; in 2010 the vote was intensely partisan, with 88 percent of Democrats and 89 percent of Republicans supporting their party’s candidate. In 2013, that’s true of only 82 percent of Republicans and 77 percent of Democrats. I expect this to increase in both cases as the election, which is still a very long way off, gets closer and the campaigns appeal to their respective party bases. I also expect that this will be a less-Republican electorate than the wave year of 2010.
Also, the number of people who “haven’t heard enough” about Foley to make up their minds about him has rocketed from 13 percent to 46 percent, or about where it was in August of 2010. Voters have apparently forgotten about Foley, which could give the Malloy campaign a chance to re-define him.
Still, the poll isn’t too reassuring for the governor. The electorate continues to be a pessimistic bunch. Under 50 percent want to see him re-elected, and 58 percent of respondents were either somewhat or very dissatisfied with how things are going in Connecticut now.
Malloy’s grumpy electorate is similar to the one Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., who oversaw the fiscal crisis of the early 1990s, faced during the third year of his administration. Weicker was elected after a beloved but befuddled outgoing governor sat on his hands while the crisis bloomed, after which Weicker was forced to make sweeping, unpopular changes during the first years of his administration. Weicker’s approval ratings hovered in the high 30s by July 1993, and a few months later he decided against a re-election bid. His 1990 opponent John G. Rowland squeaked into the top job in 1994.
Gov. Malloy is actually in better shape than Weicker was. I know, it’s not exactly comforting to be doing marginally better than a governor who was so roundly loathed, but Malloy’s situation could certainly be worse. His approval ratings are higher, the field of candidates who are preparing to run against him is a lot weaker (i.e., nobody with statewide name recognition except for Foley). Also, Weicker was an independent who would have faced another grueling three-way race in 1994, whereas Malloy will benefit from being a Democrat in a state where Democrats, by and large, rule. Voters were preparing to reject Weicker wholesale by the summer of 1993, but this doesn’t seem to be the case with Malloy — yet.
Of course, this latest poll should be taken with a dump truck full of salt, as the 2014 election is still a very, very long way off. That’s the problem with early polls like this; as tempting as it is to read a lot into it, the oceans of time between now and the fall of 2014 will shift the landscape in ways a single poll can’t possibly predict. The best takeaway here is that voters are definitely unhappy with Malloy and with the way things are going in Connecticut, but they aren’t dead set on kicking the governor out just yet.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.