In the spring of 1994, Arne Carlson’s chief of staff, Ed Stringer, called me into his office to deliver Carlson’s latest job approval rating as measured by a Star Tribune poll.
Stringer was beaming. “Fifty-seven percent!” he announced. Carlson would leave office with job approval in the high sixties, rarefied territory for a politician.
Two decades on, Gov. Mark Dayton is coming close to those numbers. A poll conducted between May and September found Dayton with a job approval rating of 59 percent and disapproval rating of 33 percent, with eight percent having no opinion.
That makes Dayton among the more popular governors in America (technically, the 14th most popular), behind the governors of South Dakota (leading the pack with 74 percent approval), Arkansas, Tennessee and South Carolina, states with more politically homogenous populations.
Dayton has had his share problems that can add to a governor’s negatives. He raised taxes. His administration’s rollout of MNsure, while not scandalous, revealed an inept leadership team that seriously misunderstood the magnitude of the challenge then responded slowly to fix the many problems. And his decision to award severance payments to several former cabinet members will certainly hurt him among some voters (the poll was conducted before that news broke).
But there’s been nothing close to some of the near-fatal blows other governors have suffered of late. Think Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate” scandal; Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s severe budget cutbacks; or Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s seemingly uncontrollable verbal outbursts.
More importantly, as with Carlson, voters seem to like and respect Dayton, even they don’t always agree with him. I’ve seen the evidence at the State Fair, watching both Dayton and Carlson in action. Neither man is a natural people person, but you wouldn’t know it by the high-fives and warm greetings they seem to attract. It’s rarely “Hello, Governor,” with either man. It was, “Hey, Arne, keep up the good work.” And, “Mark, you keep fighting for us.”
Both governors have mastered the art of compensating for prickly personalities and unpopular decisions by giving voters something that’s more valuable: a sense that they’re accessible, honest and authentic.
Voters tend to see their governor as almost a member of the family. He or she is the politician they probably know best. So a voter wants a governor that delivers a course action that comes from principles, even when those principles stray from the party lines.
Dayton believes in high taxes, but he also believes in gun owners’ rights — and has governed accordingly. Carlson kept a firm hand on state spending, but he also defied his party with his support for gay rights.
Both men could be unpredictable — but not unreliable. They follow their principles as well as their political instincts.
That’s the basis for solid job approval for a governor in any state.