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Governor Favorability Ratings as an Accurate Reflection of Effective Public Management? A Need for Further Areas of Research

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sean Ziller
May 2, 2019

In an era of heightened political divisiveness, favorability ratings published for each of the 50 state executives can either bolster existing public contempt or fortify established support along ideological lines. However, for many academics and experts in the public service realm, such results are viewed using a different, and often more informative, lens; ultimately providing unique insights not only into the collective feeling of the electorate, but the degree to which distinct policy platforms have been altogether accepted or rejected. In addition, such information can illustrate how the public perceives the effectiveness of a given administration–whether it believes it has successfully implemented its stated agenda, with beneficial results, or operated disjointedly during its tenure.

While it would be naïve not to recognize other factors, including larger sociopolitical and economic influences, which could certainly impact the frequently fluctuating nature of state level favorability ratings, the snapshots that these survey results provide should not be overlooked by those officials when reflecting on their public service efforts. Furthermore, state executives should view them as part of a critical referendum that could ultimately help to guide both formal and informal policy processes moving forward.

In April 2019, Morning Consult, a global technology company that interacts with complex survey research and related data, released its quarterly report detailing governor approval rankings. Apart from the like-to-dislike ratio attached to each governor’s job performance, which then informed a corresponding listing of the most to least favorable state executives across the country, Morning Consult examined trends determined from its more recent rating reviews when evaluated collectively. Such trends include how favorability has shifted over time for each official, how individual parties view their respective administration, and what critical insights can be drawn from the current public attitude.

A few obvious, but nonetheless poignant, takeaways were gleamed from the survey of 472,802, gathered over a three-month period in the first quarter of 2019. First is the revelation that the top 10 most favorable governors are Republican, each with approval ratings above 50 percent, who lead what are traditionally blue states. In turn, eight Democrats and two Republicans round out the bottom 10 governors with the least favorable job performances, according to the constituents who were surveyed. Morning Consult also examined governors who, facing reelection in 2019 or 2020, would be considered most vulnerable in losing their seat. This information, viewed together, provides a trending, albeit largely simplified, picture of the demeanor of the public towards their chief state officials.   

New York Magazine further examined the data gathered by Morning Consult through the article, “The Most Popular Governors in America are Republicans in Blue States.” Again, what is highlighted here is the curious discovery that certain state executives have had seeming success in being able to bridge the traditional red-blue divide. It has been suggested that one reason for Republican governors remaining popular in blue states, for example, is the lack of establishment party power. This has ostensibly resulted in those governors possessing at least a degree of greater flexibility in their decision-making. Instead of having to strictly toe the party line, these leaders are seemingly able to, by and large, hold views and exercise policy decisions that more freely run the political spectrum.

While the lack of greater party influence has been viewed as the basis for such heightened flexibility in the policymaking of current governors, this notion also offers new inroads of research relevant to public administration. Now, observers within the field can try and ascertain whether flexibility has, in turn, resulted in increases in effective public management. From the onset, such a hypothesis would seem to ring true: state executives who aren’t as entrenched in extreme political positions can, instead, move forward with more amiable policies. However, in reviewing governorship across the favorability spectrum, we shouldn’t take the available data at face value in order to determine levels of efficiency and effectiveness. Rather, it will still require scrutiny, on a case-by-case basis, of the policies enacted by respective governors.

We must keep in mind the political and social conditions that exist, and will inevitably change, within each state. This will necessitate evaluating both the short and long-term consequences of said policies; a process quarterly survey results will likely not be able fully emphasize. Our role, as devotees of public administration, is to at times look beyond public perception and determine what the data is really telling us when probed further.  

In an ideal world, politics would remain a solely positive force in public administrating; helping to highlight compromise when possible, sharpening policy decisions and helping to further processes that meet the needs of every constituent. While, in reality, we know this to not be the case, the ability to objectively evaluate highly scrutinized areas of public administration—and responsibly take into account political factors and influences—is possible. Only then, in the case of evaluating state executives beyond just favorability ratings, will we be able to uncompromisingly determine the extent and success of elected leadership.

Author: Mr. Sean L. Ziller is a policy analyst and consultant with Conduent State and Local Solutions, Inc. in Philadelphia. He possesses a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from King’s College (Wilkes-Barre, PA) and a Master of Public Administration degree from Pennsylvania State University. All opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer. He can be reached at [email protected].

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