Guest Commentary: A session slump or a Trump drag?
By Mileah Kromer
In late February, the Goucher Poll released the first statewide survey of Marylanders since President Trump took the oath of office. Given nationwide polling and Maryland’s partisan composition, it came with little surprise that President Trump’s approval rating in Maryland registered just below 30 percent.
Yet, President Trump’s approval rating was only of secondary interest to me when I was designing this iteration of the Goucher Poll. I wanted to know the same thing that every politico, reporter, and rank-and-file political junkie was wondering: Would Gov. Larry Hogan experience a “Trump drag” on his approval ratings?
After about a month into the Trump presidency and efforts by Democrats to link the two Republicans together, the Goucher Poll found that Gov. Hogan remained popular with a low-60’s approval rating. This was a downtick from the low-70’s high he registered in September 2016 and the same as his approval ratings in February 2016. Thus, I attributed this downtick to a session slump rather than a Trump drag.
My assertion was that during legislative session Gov. Hogan has to share the political media environment with the Democrats in the Maryland General Assembly; it is the absence of an organized counterpoint that helped buoy Hogan’s approval rating in the fall and its presence that pulls it back down in the spring. Putting it in Maryland politics terms, in the summer and fall it’s mostly Larry Hogan issuing a popular executive order on the Ocean City Boardwalk and allocating funds to address the heroin epidemic, but in the spring it’s a mix of adorable children dressed in superhero costumes advocating for paid sick leave and any number of passionate Democrats available to promote their message to the State House press corps.
Here is what the Goucher Poll numbers from October 2015 to February 2017 show: Gov. Hogan is least popular with registered Democrats (the majority of the voting population) during legislative session (i.e. the February 2016 and February 2017 Goucher Polls). A similar pattern is found among unaffiliated/Independent voters. Republicans love Gov. Hogan (but they are outnumbered in Maryland). This results in Gov. Hogan sustaining strong approval ratings with some, but not dramatic, fluctuation.
So, what should the polling data show if a Trump drag was directly responsible for the downturn in Gov. Hogan’s approval rating from September 2016 to February 2017?
(1) The majority of voters who disapproved of Gov. Hogan offered a Trump-related reason for their disapproval.
However, when the Goucher Poll asked the 17 percent of residents who disapproved of the way Larry Hogan is handling his job as governor why they disapproved, only 12 percent of the 17 percent who disapproved offered a Trump-specific reason.
(2) The majority of voters said that Gov. Hogan was spending “too little” time addressing national politics and/or President Trump’s executive actions.
When in fact, only about a third think that Gov. Hogan is spending “too little” time addressing national politics and Donald Trump’s executive actions. Coincidently, around a third feel the same way about Democrats in the Maryland General Assembly. So, yes, there is a segment of the Maryland voting population who think that Gov. Larry Hogan should be spending more time addressing national issues related to President Trump. However, it is not the majority opinion nor is it Hogan specific.
(3) Gov. Hogan’s approval ratings were at significantly lower levels among voters who disapproved of President Trump and/or among those who said that their opinion of President Trump will have “a lot” or “some” effect on their 2018 vote.
While the majority of Maryland voters (55 percent) do said that their opinions of President Trump will influence their vote in 2018, this alone is not enough to conclude there is a Trump drag. Why? Because “Trump will matter some or a lot in 2018” is not currently synonymous with “Trump will hurt Hogan in 2018.” In fact, nearly 60 percent of voters who say that their opinions toward Donald Trump will influence their 2018 vote approve of the job Larry Hogan is doing as governor. And, 56 percent of those who disapprove of President Trump approve of Gov. Hogan.
If not a Trump drag, what factors are associated with the downtick in Hogan approval ratings?
Table 2 below compares approval rating of Gov. Hogan among Maryland politics and Trump specific factors.
Maryland politics factors: Voters who say that. . .things in the state are heading off on the wrong track; Maryland Democrats have better policies for economic growth; the state government should focus more on improving public transportation; and the state is spending “too little” to fund education in the state.
Trump specific factors: Voters who say that. . .their views toward President Trump will have “a lot” or “some” influence how they will vote in 2018; and they disapprove of the way Donald Trump is handling his job as present.
As mentioned above, Gov. Hogan’s approval ratings are considerably above water among the Trump specific factors. Hogan does similarly well among those who want more investment in public transit and voters who think the state spends too little to fund public education. Hogan’s lowest approval ratings are found among the voters who think that Democrats have better policies for economic growth and development and those that think the state is headed down the wrong track.
What does this mean for the session slump?
I believe a session slump is preliminarily borne out in the numbers, at least certainly more so than a Trump drag. Voters who think the Maryland Democrats have better economic policies and those who are unhappy with the direction of the state are pulling down Gov. Hogan’s approval ratings. And, they are likely reacting to an increased awareness of the Maryland Democratic vision/policies for the state — economic and otherwise — that occurs during legislative session.
That being said, I’d be more inclined to take a pundit victory lap if Gov. Hogan’s approval ratings also took a hit among those who think we spend too little on education and those who think the government should focus on public transit i.e. the two issues that Maryland Democrats have consistently criticized Gov. Hogan on since he took office. This nuance of the numbers warrants further consideration.
To close, I want to acknowledge a point raised by Josh Kurtz. He noted that there isn’t enough data to assert a cyclical nature of the slump. To his point, the Goucher Poll wasn’t around during Ehrlich years and there just hasn’t been enough Republican governors to empirically verify the recurrent nature of my session slump contention. Point taken, Josh (perhaps older and wiser future us can revisit this point when we have more data).
Remember that polls are a snapshot in time and a late-February Goucher Poll is already a political lifetime ago. Over the next few months we will get a clearer picture of how President Trump’s budgetary plan will influence the Maryland economy and, subsequently, public opinion. Gov. Hogan could eventually experience a Trump drag— but only time, and future polls, will tell.
Mileah Kromer is the director of the Goucher Poll. She is also an associate professor of political science at Goucher College. She lives in Baltimore. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mileahkromer.