by Paul Goldman
Despite winning with a 59% landslide, the new PPP gives Governor McDonnell only a 44% approval rating, with a full 20% not ready to express either a thumbs up or down on His Excellency’s job performance. This is a far different tale than than McDonnell’s own consultants having been saying for months now, claiming to have polling evidence of his being hugely more popular than the numbers released today.
Indeed, despite McDonnell having led an independent-voter revolt last year, his approval rating .among Independents is roughly the same as Democrat Jim Webb who barely won two years ago and who has been voting basically a straight Democratic line in Washington on hot button issues.
Bottom line: Right now, there is only one office holder in Virginia, Senator Warner, who has an approval rating above 50, and his is close enough to be in the margin of error.
Assuming, of course, you believe the PPP survey is accurate.
As former President Bill Clinton famously said, sometimes things do boil down to what is…is. I have some problems with the sample and the numbers. But they do tell a story consistent with Virginia political history.
By and large, movements in statewide Virginia politics have been presaged by the perceived relative success of Governors. Former Governor Robb got off to a slow start after taking over from 3 successive GOP chief executives. But by 1985 he was seen as very popular, and this was a key to laying the ground work for Baliles and Wilder to be elected Governor, and of course Robb himself getting elected Senator in 1988. George Allen was very popular upon leaving the Governorship, providing the fuel for an historic sweep that year by Republicans, along with his defeat of Robb in 2000.
Mark Warner, like Robb, started slow, but was highly popular in his last year, this giving the edge to Lt. Governor Kaine in 2005 and also giving some needed fuel to get Jim Webb over the top against Allen in what proved to be the beginning of a strong DEM cycle running through 2008.
If you believe the PPP poll, then McDonnell’s win in 2009 was mostly the result of an anti-Democratic tide in an off-year electorate, the same basic equation for the just completed midterms. That is to say: He doesn’t have Robb or Warner’s numbers, or Governor Allen’s back in 1997.
Thus, the problem for George Allen in 2012: So far, there is no indication that Governor McDonnell’s brand of Republicanism is any better accepted by swing voters than Senator Webb’s Democratic approach to things.
Generally, Allen maintains his support from 2006, although his image has suffered but so has everyone else with a recognizable name for having been in political office for a period of years.
From a political perspective, Allen faces the classic problem of any rematch: How does he grow his support given that most voters seem to have already decided between him and Senator Webb?
The 2006 electorate was much smaller than both men will face in a presidential year. Yet the polling numbers suggest the partisans are not going to be crossing over in any significant numbers even if voting in double the size.
So unless something unique happens – a mistake, a brilliant play – in the next two years, the Webb vs Allen race will be decided by independent leaning voters, especially those who either didn’t vote 6 years ago or who weren’t registered at the time. This can’t be good for Allen unless President Obama is going to tank in Virginia.
But enter then Bob McDonnell.
While the jury is out on his performance right now, this will presumably not be the case in 20 months from now, as the presidential election year is in full Monte.
What Allen needs, indeed what the VA GOP needs for 2011 and 2013, is for Governor McDonnell’s numbers to be north of a 60% approval rating. This is not easy in the current environment.
If the PPP numbers are to be believed, the GOP right now does not have a popular statewide official although Governor McDonnell’s ratings give him a chance to be such a person.
Why is this important?
Because it stands to reason that a swing voter who isn’t positive on Governor McDonnell is not likely to be jumping up and down for George Allen, Lt. Governor Bolling or AG Ken Cuccinelli.
George Allen, once the rebel, is now the establishment figure. In this kind of political climate, this helps Jim Webb since it takes the anti-establishment argument off the table.
The poll confirms Mark Warner’s instincts that he needs to be seen as more centrist to hold the key to his political strength, a favorable view among moderate independent and Republican types, the same folks who helped former Senator John Warner stay in office for 5 terms.
Why shouldn’t Webb go after these voters also although he doesn’t have Warner’s history with them? Of course he should and he will unless he isn’t going to run.
Along the same lines, George Allen knows he has to get to the middle in political parlance to have a chance at winning if the PPP numbers are right. This will be easy if Obama is seen as pulling the Democrats way left, all the former Senator has to do is stand his ground and he will be seen as more centrist.
But all he can control is what he does, and possibly have some influence on what the Governor does. In that regard, his interests and that of Governor McDonnell, along with the VA GOP, would seem to align on this political axis: the better McDonnell does, the better they will do.
Allen needs McDonnell to create the beachhead, so that he can try to position himself as a new and improved George Allen, more in the mold of a popular Virginia Governor.
No doubt, the initial reaction of Virginia Democrats is going to be what Brian Moran, the future Party Chair, has been saying: it is time for Democrats to get more aggressive in opposing McDonnell. This is reflective of the feeling that Republicans made the mistake of cooperating with Mark Warner.
But that misreads the history. In the public mind, because the situation played out as Warner vs. House Republicans, Warner was seen as being practical, the GOP ideological. They let Warner be seen as the key who wanted to solve problems, not posture.
Thus, the right lesson is this one: By taking the lead and creating a cooperative image with McDonnell, Democrats actually help themselves in 2011, Webb in 2012, and the Democratic ticket in 2013, and prevent McDonnell from seizing the middle, forcing Democrats to give him the credit, or allow the Governor to paint them as obstructionists. Right now, McDonnell isn’t strong enough to carry that case.
But he could be depending on how the next months play out.
The key to Clinton’s comeback in 1996 wasn’t that he listened to the right winger Dick Morris, but rather that Newt Gingrich looked in the mirror every morning and thought he saw the answer to the country’s problems. So Newt let Clinton win the practical man image, governing, not posturing.
When Gingrich shut down the government, the public raised up Clinton since he was the only one able to stop the former House Speaker, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole having deserted commonsense in order to get the 1996 GOP presidential nomination.
If Democrats believe the PPP numbers, Governor McDonnell has not sealed the deal as his being the Mark Warner of his party, a problem solver as Governor.
Clearly, Cuccinelli isn’t that guy, the same for Bolling, thus the GOP has left a huge opening down at the state capitol. The opening is there, so far.
Allen needs McDonnell to fill it, Webb needs Senator Saslaw to fill it.
Unless, of course, someone else wants to pick up the Torch, take the lead and become the next Governor. Right now, Virginians aren’t much impressed with anyone in public office.
Give Warner credit for sensing it first. Who is going to be next?