Americans really love their governors

Pollsters differ on how much, but most hold high approval ratings.

April 18, 2024, 3:54 PM

On a cool day last October, while federal officials in Washington, D.C., were squabbling to elect a new speaker of the House, Phil Scott was talking about construction.

The Vermont governor stood in a spacious workshop outside Montpelier, the state capital, surrounded by wooden beams and workers wearing bright blue hard hats. Over the sounds of power drills, Scott spoke for almost an hour about promoting careers in the trade industry, building more housing and expanding the state's workforce by encouraging immigration. He promoted his work with the state's all-Democratic congressional delegation twice and name-checked Patrick Leahy, the state's former Democratic U.S. senator, saying "we miss him."

A casual observer that day could have been forgiven for assuming the governor was a Democrat; it would be only natural, given his rhetoric and the fact that Vermont is one of the most liberal states in the country, voting for President Joe Biden by 35 percentage points in 2020. And according to polling from Morning Consult, Scott is the most popular governor in America right now. But the four-term incumbent is actually a Republican, and a lifelong one at that.

Focusing on non-divisive issues like economic development is part of what's allowed Scott to not just survive, but thrive in the left-leaning state. And while ticket-splitting as a whole has been in decline over the years, the phenomenon of a deep-blue or red state electing a highly popular governor of the opposite party is certainly nothing new. But a new analysis by 538 suggests that while governors remain broadly popular across the country, Scott and his fellow pols may not have as high of approval ratings as it appears at first glance.

Morning Consult has long released quarterly approval ratings for the nation's governors and U.S. senators. Those results are cited widely by national and local news outlets alike, including by 538. But some observers have noticed that these ratings, which consistently show all or most governors with a positive net approval rating, seem shocking given today's political polarization. In Morning Consult's most recent round of polling, only one governor, Tate Reeves of Mississippi, had a negative net approval rating.

We were curious if other polling backed this up, so we compiled every state-level poll from 2023 that asked a governor approval question (182 polls in all) to see if data from other firms matched Morning Consult's findings. On the whole, these other polls affirm Morning Consult's conclusions that America's governors are highly popular. But Morning Consult's data was still a bit rosier than that of other pollsters.

Across each quarter of 2023, we found that the net gubernatorial approval ratings in Morning Consult's surveys exceeded non-Morning Consult polls by an average of 7 percentage points. We also found that Morning Consult polls had a higher share of respondents who expressed any opinion, positive or negative, about how their governor is doing — an average of 5 points higher across each quarter. That means fewer respondents said they weren't sure, or that they hadn't heard enough about their governor to have an opinion. Crucially though, much of that difference came in the fourth quarter due to surveys from Emerson College, which had much higher rates of respondents who said they didn't have an opinion compared with other pollsters. When Emerson's polls aren't included, the average overall opinion difference drops to just 2 points.

A spokesperson for Morning Consult pointed to the differences in question wording and response options between Morning Consult and other pollsters as one reason why its results may be different. Morning Consult's polls allow respondents to express the strength of their opinion by asking whether they "strongly" or "somewhat" approve or disapprove. Some other pollsters only allow respondents to choose "approve," "disapprove" or an undecided option, although many provide similar options as Morning Consult. Another consideration is that Morning Consult polls registered voters, who are more likely to have an opinion on political questions like approval and vote choice than the broader adult population.

"We are the only outlet who releases governor approval in all 50 states," the spokesperson said in an email. "It's the only standard metric for comparing elected leaders across state lines using the same question format, mode, and population."

To the firm's credit, when we compared Morning Consult's data with just local pollsters, the differences were smaller. When considering only polls conducted by pollsters who are based in the same state that the poll was fielded in, the average quarterly difference dropped by over 2 points, and the difference in respondents who express any opinion shrank by 3 points. Local pollsters usually know their states best, so it's a point in Morning Consult's favor that its data matches the local experts at a higher rate than the overall average.

But setting aside the differences between the datasets, almost half of the nation's governors still had a net approval rating of +10 points or higher among the non-Morning Consult polls. And in that same dataset, only three governors had a net negative approval rating last year: Reeves, Brad Little of Idaho and Jim Pillen of Nebraska. Those results come with a lot of uncertainty, though: We had only one qualifying poll each in Idaho and Nebraska last year, both from Emerson College, which contrary to Morning Consult found consistently lower approval ratings compared to the rest of the pollsters in our dataset. And in six states, there wasn't a single qualifying poll asking about governor approval. That includes Oregon, where Gov. Tina Kotek was consistently ranked as one of the least popular governors in America last year, according to Morning Consult, but with which we have no other polls to compare.

One reason that governors are so consistently well-liked across regional and partisan divides is the simple fact that they are not federal officials. That allows them to stay out of the fiery disputes and mudslinging that often roil Washington, D.C., like the drama that accompanied the House of Representatives' attempts to elect a new speaker last fall. (Of course, some governors choose to wade into these debates anyway in an effort to raise their national profile, but that doesn't always end well.)

Most governors also have trifectas in their states, allowing them to campaign on tangible policy achievements. Whereas a federal representative's ability to bring home the bacon is affected by whether or not their party is in power nationally — and federal "trifectas" across Congress and the presidency occur less frequently than in the states — governors are able to pass their legislative priorities much more easily. That allows them to build up a laundry list of achievements that they can use to ingratiate themselves to voters. Alternatively, governors like Scott can appear like the voice of reason when they oppose measures passed by the dominant party in their state that the public may view as going too far — although that might not stop the legislature from overriding a veto if it has the votes.

So, despite the fact that Morning Consult's data is more favorable to governors than some other polls, that difference doesn't really change the overall takeaway from the pollster's results. Governors in every corner of the U.S. are extremely popular, often the most popular politician in their state. There's a reason why party leaders in D.C. have had such trouble luring governors to run for Congress lately: The chaos and theatrics in the nation's capital are making many of them feel like they have it pretty good right where they are.

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