An incumbent with a record of questionable bipartisan accomplishments in his first term, a dubious job approval rating and one who has a reputation as a polarizing figure gets reelected despite all the odds. If you think I’m describing Tom Corbett you would be wrong. Rather, the scenario just described is that of Barack Obama in 2012.
So the political prognostications have begun in earnest with many saying Republican Governor Tom Corbett could be the first governor in history to lose reelection in 2014 and break the Commonwealth’s 8-year cycle of electing Republican and Democratic governors.
Corbett certainly looks like an endangered incumbent based on what we know today. His job approval rating in our February Statewide Omnibus poll conducted 2/15-2/18 was only 39%, while 52% said they disapproved. This is not where Corbett should be after two years in office and two state budgets delivered on time and without any new state taxes.
But a closer look at the numbers shows he’s not really that different than where former Gov. Ed Rendell was at the same mid-way point in 2005 one year before his first reelection. Why? Because when we look at their job approvals with voters of their own parties, Corbett and Rendell have basically the same level of popularity with their respective bases. Republicans approve of Corbett’s tenure (58%) at nearly the same levels that Democrats approved of Rendell at the same time (64%). The difference is that Corbett is weaker with Democratic voters (14 points behind where Rendell was with voters of the opposing political party), while Rendell had more popularity with Republicans due to his popularity in the Southeast among moderate Republicans.
So if Corbett can win back many swing Democrats between now and 2014, he will surprise many who think he’s looking at defeat. This is why his Democratic challenger will be so important. And this is why the similarities between what Obama did to Romney last year, and what Corbett may have to do to defeat his Democratic challenger next year are relevant. In the last presidential election, the Obama campaign presumably decided early on that the best pathway to getting reelected was to discredit Romney. The Corbett campaign is probably weighing a similar strategy, and whoever Democrats nominate to run against Corbett will be very important.
If it’s someone like liberal Philadelphia congresswoman Allyson Schwartz , then mainstream conservative or “swing” Democrats, who tend to vote in higher numbers than liberal or urban Democrats in gubernatorial elections, will now face a choice between a fiscal and social liberal, or someone like Corbett who not only shares their values and concerns on social and cultural issues, but has a record as a fiscal conservative on taxes and spending issues. This means if Democrats nominate someone who is too liberal, or has a record that can be easily attacked as out-of-sync with mainstream voters, then voters are likely to take a fresh look at Corbett. This fresh look at Corbett might be precisely what the doctor orders if the alternative is a Democrat who can be defined as someone who will return the Keystone State to the same tax, spending and borrow policies of the Rendell years. But if the Democrats nominate a relative newcomer, or someone who lacks a record in public and is therefore harder to attack, then Corbett could be in a more difficult position to win.
And there is ample precedent for a Corbett comeback. Former Gov. Rendell suffered from a poor public image in September 2005 one year before his reelection due to fallout from the ill-fated pay raise law he signed into law that same summer. His job approval rating at the time was a humbling 43%. But only a year later Rendell went on to defeat his GOP challenger Lynn Swann by 20 points in what became a “wave” election year for Democrats.
Corbett may also benefit from the national political environment, which at the time seems to benefit the GOP. The growing IRS scandal, continued implementation of Obama care and the natural blow back we tend to see in mid-year elections against the party in power in the White House could end up producing a “perfect storm” for the GOP in 2014. As one example of this, our recent polling on Obama care showed that 60% of Pa voters say that once Obama care is fully implemented in 2014, it will lead to higher insurance costs. And 53% said this law will have a negative, rather than positive, impact on the economy. This is quite startling since these are the same voters who gave Obama a 5-point margin just last year. So this could be a little bit of early buyer’s remorse, and confirms that the president is clearly more personally popular than are his policies. So without Obama on the ballot in 2014, if the GOP does a good job running against the Obama policies, it’s not a stretch to say we might be looking at a wave election for Republicans with a little bit of luck. Based on this, Corbett could wind up running for reelection with a small tail wind at his back instead of a strong headwind.
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