OP-ED | Dems Ignore Voters’ Grumpy Mood at Their Peril
On Wednesday, Quinnipiac University released the sort of poll that should give Democrats a headache. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, whose approval inched up to 44 percent in March, is back down to 37 percent. Voters broadly disapprove of Malloy’s handling of the economy, taxes, and, crucially, education. The Democrat-controlled legislature is even worse, only 32 percent approve of their performance.
Voters believe the economy is bad, they disapprove of the recent death penalty repeal, and even President Obama’s approval has sunk to a miserable 49 percent, with 47 percent disapproving.
Democrats don’t seem worried. These numbers aren’t exactly news, after all. The governor’s approval rating has always been lousy, and the legislature is likewise persistently unpopular. Even the president has struggled here over the past year; he posted the exact same approval rating last September. Voters have always liked the death penalty and opposed repeal, and this governor isn’t likely to score well with them on taxes no matter what he does. What should give Democrats pause is that none of these things are improving; in fact, this month’s poll suggests the opposite.
We’re in a persistently bad mood, and have been for years. The question for the state’s ruling party is whether this just the usual Cranky Yankee Syndrome, in which people from around here would curse the day for being long and the sun for shining, or is it something more worrisome? The key is likely the economic number. People don’t believe the economy is getting better. Some 79 percent of respondents rate the economy as “not so good” or “poor,” despite the fact that unemployment is falling and is lower here than in many other parts of the country. Economic activity is picking up again, and wide majorities of those polled say that their own personal finances are in good shape. More people say that they’re somewhat or very satisfied with how things are going in Connecticut than did in November. Despite all this, people are still grouchy about the state of the economy, and they blame the people in charge.
It seems that no matter what the governor and legislature do, people don’t like them. The legislature can do popular things like raising the minimum wage and passing medical marijuana, but their ratings aren’t going to get better. The governor can champion education policies like tenure reform that are individually popular, but voters will give him low marks on education. Despite all of the governor’s town hall meetings and the constant press to pass education reform, people still don’t trust his leadership on the issue.
In another state where the opposition party wasn’t a sad little ghost of its former self, anchored to a national party that seems designed to alienate northeastern moderates, this decade-long frustration might mean that Democrats would be in some trouble when legislative elections roll around this November. But this is Connecticut, where Republicans can’t ever seem to take advantage of voter angst, so instead we’ll return a lot of the same people to the same jobs, and it’ll all repeat. Therefore, it’s tempting for Democrats to ignore the voter angst on display in this and previous Quinnipiac polls.
They shouldn’t — not entirely. One poll is one poll, of course, and politicians, who constantly blow in the wind whenever public opinion shifts, deserve the disrespect they get (see: Mitt Romney). It’s often much more important to pass good legislation than it is to court public opinion. Still, there could be repercussions later if Democrats aren’t careful. For instance, they’ve been able to scratch a whole slew of items off their legislative wish list thanks to wide majorities in both chambers and a willing Democratic governor, but voter annoyance now could eventually lead to reduced majorities and a Republican back in charge in 2014. There’s also a very real danger of a Republican winning a U.S. Senate seat this fall. It’s easy to say that something can’t happen here right up until the moment when it does.
A more thorny and complicated long-term problem for Malloy and the Democrats is our collective low self-esteem. When it comes right down to it, we simply have no faith in Connecticut. A friend remarked this week that she’d never heard of anyone who was proud of being from here, and that’s about right. Beyond voter angst at the economy and Gov. Malloy’s leadership skills, that fundamental issue remains: how can we move forward if we don’t believe in ourselves?
The legislative session ends May 9 and there will be plenty for which Democrats can be proud. In all the celebration, however, they shouldn’t forget that outside the Capitol people believe that the state’s still in the dumps, and that it’ll never get better.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CT Local Politics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.