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Tom Corbett has become the political equivalent of a dead man walking.
The governor’s approval rating among voters, which never was very high, is now in the toilet. Only one in five Pennsylvania voters believe he deserves re-election, according to the most recent Franklin & Marshall poll.
Those who say his performance is excellent or good is at 16 percent in the new F&M poll, the lowest of any governor in the modern history of the state. It was 32 percent at the same time two years ago.
Corbett has problems across the board: in every region of the state, among every political stripe – Democrat, Republican, independent, liberal, even conservative.
It’s no surprise the governor would get a low job rating from Democrats (85%); but he gets low marks among independents (81%), among Republicans (63%), even among those who identify themselves as conservative (61%).
“He never made the transition from attorney general to governor, said Terry Madonna, whose Center for Opinion Research conducted the latest poll, which was done in late August. “He doesn’t have a relationship with the voters…”
It’s typical to add the usual caveat: the gubernatorial election is more than a year away; Corbett has time to make up lost ground; he may be blessed with a weak Democratic candidate and win the day. “Never underestimate the power of an incumbent,” is the way one Democrat put it.
The odd thing about Corbett, though, is that Republicans are more pessimistic about a Corbett rebound than Democrats.
In a round of conservations with political operatives and long-time activists from each party, the same theme resonated:
Corbett’s problems with the voters are both wide and deep. It will be difficult for him to dig himself out of the hole he is in now – partly because his approval numbers are so low, but mostly because he lacks the personal and political skills to do better.
“His people like to say he has a ‘message problem,’” said one Republican operative. “That’s not his problem. His problem is that people get his message.”
And they don’t like it.
The issue that defines his problem best is public education.
When you ask voters to rank the issues that concern them the most, education usually is near the bottom of the list. For instance, in October 2010 – the month before Corbett was elected – only 4 percent of the voters identified education as a problem, in contrast to the 39 percent who said the economy was the biggest problem.
In the latest F&M poll, concerns about education lead the list: with 23 percent identifying it as the number one problem. Concerns about the economy stand at 7 percent.
As Madonna put it: “Normally, you would not have education move to the center during a recession or even post-recession period, but that is clearly what voters are concerned about.”
In a sense, Corbett has lifted that issue to the top with his relentless cuts in both basic and secondary education. We are all too painfully aware of the cuts in state aid to the Philadelphia district, but that is only part of the story.
The media across the state is filled with stories of local school district either cutting services or raising taxes – and often both – to counter a decline in state aid.
Corbett has managed to hit a nerve with voters over an issue close to home.
Madonna again: “One thing voters generally agree upon, despite all the criticism of education, is that they like their local schools. They like them and they realize the importance of education.”
Corbett did have a case to make in cutting state subsidies to public schools.
The state was in the midst of the Great Recession. State government faced a $4 billion deficit. About $1 billion in federal stimulus money that his predecessor, Ed Rendell, had used to prop up the state’s basic education subsidy was gone – never to return.
In order to fill the hole left by the exodus of federal money, Corbett would have had to enact an increase in state taxes, which conflicted with his bedrock promise of no new taxes. Tough decisions had to be made.
From a public policy standpoint, governors have always struggled with the cost of education because of the fact that while the state is responsible to fund it, it has no control over the spending. Those decisions are made by the boards of the 504 school districts in the state. When Corbett took office, overall spending on public schools was going up, even while the number of students enrolled in the schools had gone down.
Those three paragraphs offer one rationale for cutting. The problem was: Corbett never offered any rationale. He only explained what he was doing, while barely talking about why.
He didn’t do a thing to sell this bitter pill. He simply administered the medicine.
And he did the same thing on issue after issue. Higher Ed, Marcellus Shale, cuts in welfare, cuts in business taxes, etc. He never offered a picture of why he was doing what he was doing, except one: I pledged not to raise taxes.
What voters have discovered is that Corbett was not really holding the line on taxes; he was simply redistributing the tax burden from the state to local governments.
Corbett’s inarticulateness, his general lack of communication, his sense of detachment — or disengagement, if you prefer — are the major causes of his current dilemma, not only with voters but also the legislature, where both chambers are controlled by his own party.
A governor whose party is in the majority in the House and Senate should be able to get his agenda enacted. Yet, in the spring, Corbett failed time and again. The legislature left town without acting on funding for transportation, privatization of the LCB and pension reform — all “must win” items on the governor’s agenda.
When I mentioned to one Republican that the governor’s approval rating among Republican voters was only 30 percent, he replied: “Thirty percent? That’s not bad…(pause)… because it’s lower among Republicans in the legislature.”
Clearly, the governor and his people are aware of their massive political problem. He has shuffled his communications and upper echelon staff. Recently, he hired Leslie Groomis Baker, a widely respected political operative and a former deputy to Gov. Tom Ridge, as his chief of staff. (His third in three years.)
The Republicans I talked said his messaging must get sharper. He must become more visible — not just in Harrisburg, but around the state. If he is lucky, the legislature will return from its summer break and give him at least a PennDOT funding bill.
Perhaps next year, when he presents his election-year budget proposal, he will sprinkle more money for education — though that won’t help him a bit in Philadelphia.
The governor is toxic in the city, where he is seen as the source of the miseries of the public schools. He got 17 percent of the vote in Philadelphia when he ran in 2010. He will not break into double digits next year.
The real battleground is the seven other counties in the Philadelphia media market. In 2010, he lost in Delaware and Montgomery County, but won in Bucks, Chester, Berks, Lehigh and NorthamptonCounties. If he loses more of them next year, it will be a fatal blow.
Republicans, acutely aware of Corbett’s liabilities and shortcomings, are turning to the Democrats to rescue their candidate.
The Democrat they would love to see at the top of the ticket is U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, who will be easy to peg as a tax-and-spend Philadelphia Democrat who not only favors abortion, but once was on the board of a clinic that performed abortions. Schwartz has announced her candidacy and is busy raising money.
Usually, Democratic primary voters tilt left, in the same way Republicans primary voters tilt right. That is an advantage for Schwartz, who has sterling liberal credentials.
But, she is not a sure bet to win the Democratic primary. In all, 10 others have either announced or hinted they will run. The primary will be the equivalent of a free market riot.
Incumbency is not to be discounted, nor is the ability of an incumbent to raise campaign money. But, as of now Corbett has the look of a stone, cold loser in 2014.