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GOP legislators shrug off rock-bottom poll numbers

House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Gov. Mark Dayton at the the 2012 legislative preview

They don’t seem to take it personally.

Two recent polls show that Minnesotans have extremely low regard for the performance of state lawmakers.

Republican legislators, who control both houses, acknowledge the situation but tend to blame their low numbers on a long list of factors they say they have little control over. They cite everything from the national mood to the proliferation of highly partisan media alternatives, such as blogs and social media.

Here’s a look at their dismal job approval numbers – and why, surprisingly, many lawmakers don’t seem that concerned.

 A KSTP/USA poll released last week showed that just 17 percent of those polled approve of the work of the Legislature. That’s even lower than a late January Public Policy Polling survey that put Republicans lawmakers’ approval rating at 23 percent and DFLers’ approval rating at 31.

By contrast, both polls showed Gov. Mark Dayton’s approval rating above 50 percent and rising.

So how do our pols react to these numbers?

On the surface, Dayton seems to almost brush them off.

His approval numbers are nice, he said, “but a poll is like perfume. It’s good to take a whiff of it but don’t swallow it.’

Nonetheless, those approval/disapproval numbers may help explain the muscular language the governor has used recently in talking about the GOP-dominated Legislature. (“Not fit to lead.” “They’re siding with mostly wrong-doers.” Etc.)

But what of the Republicans? Doesn’t even a whiff of these numbers cause them concern about their ability to stay in the majority?

GOP leader not concerned

House Speaker Kurt Zellers says he’s not really concerned and cites a common political view: “Everybody loves their own congressman or legislator, but not the institution.

There likely is some truth to that statement, which was repeated by a number of state legislators who were asked about their in-the-tank approval ratings.

More than a decade ago, Rutgers political scientist Alan Rosenthal noted in his book “Decline of Representative Democracy’’ that “Americans do not care for disagreement, negotiation, compromise, the role of political parties or the influence of interest groups.”

At both the national and state levels, that pretty much sums up the political situation of lawmakers at all levels.

And certainly, negative views of state legislatures are not unusual. A 2009 study by University of Missouri political scientists found that citizens in only five states — Alaska, Idaho, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming — viewed their legislatures favorably.

The overall approval rating of state legislatures in that study was 35 percent, but currently the Minnesota Legislature is running half of that.

A new low?

Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, a legislator for 35 years, says he never can recall legislative ratings hitting these lows. Not surprisingly, the old liberal believes it’s the Republican attitudes about government in general that have helped sink the ratings.

“They’ve over-reached both nationally and locally,” said Cohen. “That, coupled with the sense of how they view government. They’re not interested in moving ahead, they just want to gum up the works.

Cohen summed up the Republican approach as a form of “nihilism.”

(As is often the case, Cohen had an old reporter scrambling to his Webster’s. The second definition of nihilism: “A doctrine of belief that conditions in the social organization are so bad as to make destruction for its own sake desirable independent of any constructive program or possibility.”)

He sees a stark difference between the current generation of Republican legislators and their predecessors: In the past, when such people as former House Speaker Dave Jennings, who was considered a conservative Republican, was in charge, DFLers and Republicans still were able to work together. That’s extremely difficult now, Cohen said, because of the “my-way-only” beliefs of so many in the GOP caucuses.

Cohen understands that there’s “a pox on both houses” regarding legislators of any party. But overall, he said, the numbers should be especially troubling for the GOP.

For starters, Republicans are in the majority, meaning they will be held more accountable at election time. Secondly, he points to the many swing districts that will be in play. Last election, Republicans won virtually every swing district because independents moved to them en masse, he said. He believes that disgusted independents may swing back to the DFL this time around.

Lots of reasons why

Legislators cite several factors outside of their control for their low numbers:

• A spillover effect — a contempt for Congress — that splashes onto state legislators. (The congressional approval rating is even lower than the Legislature’s, with a January poll putting it at 13 percent.)

• The rise of highly partisan media alternatives, constantly stoking the fires of anger toward pols on “the other side.”

• Last summer’s state shutdown, which clearly hurt the GOP Legislature more than it hurt the governor.

• And one other factor: It’s easier to disapprove of the people you don’t know — in this case, the Legislature as a whole, as opposed to your own legislator.

Rep. King Banaian, R-St. Cloud, is in his first term, after winning a squeaker of an election.

When he first saw the numbers, his first thought was: “Oh wow,” he said.

But then, he took a deep breath and recalled some of his own research. Clear back in the 1980s, Banaian, a college prof, said he did some research regarding the approval ratings of  governors, as opposed to legislators.

Personal vs. impersonal

“It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison,” Banaian said. “Dayton’s a particular person, not a body. It would be far more interesting to compare the governor to the [House] speaker.”

Because they see him constantly, Banaian said people feel as if they know Dayton. They simply don’t see, or even know, the names of most legislators.

The surprising thing is, he said, is that if they got to know legislators, in most cases they’d like them. Banaian said he learned that lesson himself shortly into his first term.

“It took a couple of months to be around Rep. [Phyllis] Kahn,” Banaian said, laughing. “At first, I found the way she spoke, the way she approach things, almost surreal. But the more I was around here, the more I found myself interested in what she was saying. We’ve discovered we even agree with each other — not often, maybe 30 percent of the time. But there is that 30 percent of the time we do agree.”

The point: If Minnesotans knew legislators, beyond their party labels or philosophical beliefs, they probably would be more tolerant of the body as a whole.

Which doesn’t mean that Banaian is unmindful of the numbers. There’s another big factor at play, he believes.

“It’s the general mood,” he said.

Times have been hard. Recovery has been slow. Whom do you blame?  The other guy, of course.

“In general, data suggest when people talk of the Legislature in general, they have negative feelings,” Banaian said. “But that’s not the case when they’re talking to their particular legislator.  People complain to me about the Legislature in general and then they say, ‘Oh my gosh, I hope you know I’m not talking about you.’ ”

What Banaian calls “the democratization of the media” helps fuel the disgust. More and more people are getting their information from highly partisan sources. That means fewer and fewer are getting “the whole story” on so many issues of the day. That leads to less understanding and more finger-pointing — and approval numbers tumble.

The good news for legislators: The numbers can’t fall much lower.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 02/15/2012 - 09:14 am.

    Legislature vs. Legislators

    The legislature has a work product–the bills that they pass. The governor has a work product–the bills that he signs.

    The legislature has an image–that created by the headline issues they choose to push. The same for the governor.

    It is entirely reasonable to judge both on their work product and issues they push. That is what the poll describes.

    John Marty is different than Dave Thompson. Shocking, huh? Each will have to face their own constituents in the next election–that is their individual poll.

    What is more shocking to me is that Banaian finds a human connection with Kahn surprising. It is sad evidence of the insular nature of the partisan politics of the day.

  2. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 02/15/2012 - 11:34 am.

    GOP does not get it!

    After such a short time in the majority, the GOP seems to be smug and reassured.

    Yesterday, I received an email from my own house member, Matt Dean. Smug and condescending as usual. His priorities – shortening the time that people have to sue companies for defective products. I wonder what he would tell the people dying of lung cancer from asbestos years after exposure. The other GOP bill – eliminate state property tax on business. This is not a bad goal since most businesses are feeling the pinch of increased local property taxes brought on by the reduction in LGA. The GOP’s solution – take the money from low-income renters!

    I am also enjoying the GOP’s caucus night marketing materials created and paid for with tax dollars. Yesterday they said this was not an issue, today Sviggum says that they will repay the money, then claims its $49! Let’s see … a state employees time to create the document, a state machine to copy the document, a state employee to copy the document, a state employee packaging and mailing the document, postage.

    In my own role as “job creator”, just yesterday I paid 10 cents per copy at a local copy center and I paid a dollar to mail a folder with a few sheets of paper.

    Our state GOP has not received the new GOP election year guidelines adopted by the US House which seems to be “shut up and pretend to be reasonable – at least until after November.”

  3. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 02/15/2012 - 11:36 am.

    Low legislature approval

    If people like their own legislators, why has there been such a turnover in recent elections?
    Banaian’s comment about Phyllis Kahn is a little surreal in itself. Maybe he needs to get out among regular working people more and find out what they think.

  4. Submitted by Arito Moerair on 02/15/2012 - 11:54 am.


    All that will matter in November is turnout, just as with every other election.

    2010 was a GOP year because Republicans voted more than anyone else. Democrats stayed home. I foresee the opposite happening in 2012.

  5. Submitted by Brad Robinson on 02/15/2012 - 11:55 am.

    The anti-government government

    What is occurring is the natural result of those in government who carry a disdain for government. This brings back to mind when Jesse V. was elected. He hated government and did little to promote the well-being of the state. Taking pride in how little gets done is the current mantra.

  6. Submitted by Rich Crose on 02/15/2012 - 12:58 pm.

    Statue to a Committee

    If you’ve ever served on a committee, you’ll understand why no one has ever put up a statue of a committee. There are plenty of statues of Governors.

    Also, negative campaigning has sullied everyone’s reputation. It doesn’t matter who gets elected, the population has seen hundreds of ads and literature telling you how big a scumbag this sucker is and how he should be in prison not in Congress. If people passed laws, we’d be voting this fall on a referendum for an open season on elected officials.

  7. Submitted by T J Simplot on 02/15/2012 - 01:05 pm.

    Personally I am tired of both parties. They both answer to their party first and the people second.

    I’m tired of the constand bickering between them.

    • Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 02/16/2012 - 09:54 am.


      ,Some examples of the Democrats acting selfishly please. Would that be in trying to increase funding for schools. Or roads,

      If you ask me, considering what stubborn egotists the Republicans are it’s amazing the Democrats can hold their temper.

  8. Submitted by Sarah Magnuson on 02/15/2012 - 04:10 pm.

    Buyer’s Remorse

    As a conservative who voted for my current house and senate representatives, I am very disappointed in the representation of the majority party.

    Before the state shutdown I emailed my freshman house rep and asked for clarification in how the proposed budget numbers were reached. The first response was a canned paragraph that could have been cut and pasted from Tony Sutton’s comments in the paper. After a second, more specific email from which my representative must have realized that I had actually looked at the two budgets being compared, he did clarify that the money owed to the school districts were basically put on both sides of the equation. Long story short, I told him that inl my opinion the numbers the republicans were portraying were misleading and that it seemed to be intentional. My representative has a background in accounting and I can tell you for a fact that he knew exactly what was being portrayed. To which he responded that maybe we should talk over the phone which I was happy to do. The laughable “budget compromise” was reached that evening and the phone conversation did not take place.

    My state senator did not deign a response, nor has he since on the 3 other occasions I’ve contacted him.

    This is the first election cycle that I have taken the time on a daily basis to become familiar with what is taking place at the state and national level, garnering information from different sources so as to view different perspectives. The republicans who represent me have demonstrated an inability to govern…ideology seems to supercede any thought or ability to problem solving. Mr Barrett popped into our caucus last week and used the few minutes he had, to speak of defeating Dayton in 3 years. I shook my head in wonderment…as I realized that I was in the wrong place as everyone seemed to be drinking the same koolaid.

    This voter knows the names and faces of her representatives and will not be voting them into another term.

    • Submitted by Mike Lhotka on 02/16/2012 - 10:52 am.

      Buyer’s Remorse

      I have not seen my state senator in my town since he was elected and he also never responds. Just sends out the party boilerplate. I guess I might deserve more of a response if I donated to his cause.
      My state representative (also a Republican) responds or comments on emails at all hours of the day and there is seldom an event in his district that he doesn’t attend.

  9. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 02/15/2012 - 05:14 pm.

    How can they defend themselves

    The Republican leadership shrugs it off because there is no way to defend their actions. They hijacked the budget process with an “our way or the highway” attitude. Then the screwed the schools, shut down the state. Now their introducing ALEC-supplied bills that none of them wrote and few even understand. Then they have spent all of their time on divisive social conservative issues to appease the lowest common denominator in their base. They don’t like government and they really didn’t want to be in charge. Frankly, I think they know they are on their way out. I’ll bet none of their own polling shows any way for them to retain power. The 2010 election was a fluke.

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