Reynolds less popular, but other factors favor re-election

Governor Kim Reynolds’ approval rating is lower than ever before, as measured by the Iowa poll by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register and Mediacom.

The numbers will encourage any Democrats considering a gubernatorial bid in 2022. But Reynolds will still carry many advantages into the campaign.

“UNSETTLING” NUMBERS FOR REYNOLDS

Brianne Pfannenstiel summarized the toplines from the latest survey questions about the governor.

Fifty-two percent of Iowans say they hope Reynolds decides not to seek a second full term as governor, and 41% hope she decides to run. Another 7% are unsure.

Reynolds’ job approval has fallen 10 percentage points from 56% in June of 2020 to 46% today. The percentage of those who disapprove has risen from 36% last year to 47% today. It’s the first time as governor that more Iowans disapprove of Reynolds’ job performance than approve.

Pollster J. Ann Selzer said the results could be viewed as “unsettling” for the governor. […]

“You can’t ignore that nearly half the state is unhappy with the job she’s doing,” said Selzer, president of Selzer & Co. in Des Moines. “That’s not where you want to be when you’re up for election in a year and a half.”

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 points, so Reynolds’ approval may not be underwater. Nevertheless, any approval rating below 50 percent is often seen as a warning sign for an incumbent.

Support for the governor is still strong among Republicans and other groups that are part of the GOP base (such as those living in rural Iowa and evangelical Christians). But among independents, Reynolds’ approve/disapprove numbers have shifted from 55 percent/35 percent in June 2020 to 44 percent/48 percent this month.

Selzer’s poll also found that 51 percent of Iowans disapprove of how the governor has handled the COVID-19 pandemic, while 47 percent approve. In contrast, President Joe Biden’s numbers related to the pandemic (57 percent approve/37 percent disapprove) were far better than his overall approval among Iowa respondents (47 percent/44 percent).

WHY THE GOVERNOR’S STILL FAVORED FOR RE-ELECTION

While Reynolds would surely prefer to have better numbers in the latest survey by a top-notch pollster, she and her strategists can feel optimistic about the coming campaign for several reasons.

The structure of the midterm electorate

First, Selzer’s poll sampled 775 Iowa adults–not registered voters and definitely not Iowans who have voted in midterm elections. That’s not a critique of the methodology; it’s helpful to know politicians’ standing among all of their constituents.

Even so, when interpreting poll numbers it’s important to remember that not all adults are equally likely to participate in Iowa’s 2022 election. Over the past two decades, we’ve consistently seen that Republicans show up to vote in midterms in larger numbers than do Democrats or voters affiliated with neither party.

I created and first published this table as part of an analysis of 2018 turnout changes.

Selzer found that Reynolds’ slide since last June was most pronounced among respondents who identified as independents. Guess which group is least likely to vote in a midterm? As you can see from the above table, far less than half of registered no-party voters have participated in Iowa’s last five midterm elections. Even in 2018, which was a high-turnout election, no-party voters were a far smaller bloc than Democrats or Republicans.

If no-party turnout had exceeded 60 percent in 2018, Fred Hubbell would have won the governor’s race.

While it’s too early to predict the national political environment in the fall of 2022, the party out of power in Washington has often done well in the first midterm election of a presidency. That dynamic would boost Republican fortunes too.

In addition, strategists in both parties expect that a pro-gun state constitutional amendment will juice GOP turnout in 2022. Republican lawmakers were furious that a screw-up in Secretary of State Paul Pate’s office pushed back the timeline for adding that extreme language to the Iowa constitution. In retrospect, perhaps they should thank him. They didn’t need this on the ballot in 2020, when Donald Trump was bringing out tons of low-propensity conservative voters.

Viewing the pandemic in the rear-view mirror

Selzer told the Register’s Pfannenstiel “that Reynolds’ handling of the pandemic appears to be a drag on her overall approval rating.” We can all hope that by the fall of 2022, a successful vaccination drive will have helped to create herd immunity to COVID-19. If the virus is no longer killing dozens of Iowans a week, the pandemic response will presumably no longer be top-of-mind for Iowa voters.

It’s even possible Reynolds’ handling of the pandemic will become more popular over time. Although Iowa’s per capita rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths are far higher than they should be, given our state’s low population density and the lead time we had to prepare, the governor will be pushing a different narrative. In her telling, she trusted Iowans to “do the right thing.” Her approach balanced Iowa lives with livelihoods, gave people a sense of “normalcy,” and allowed children to go back to school “safely and responsibly.” That may be an appealing message for voters who don’t want to hear that we could have saved hundreds or thousands of Iowa lives by listening to experts including the Trump administration’s White House Coronavirus Task Force.

Other advantages of incumbency

All other things being equal, Iowans tend to re-elect incumbents. Only two governors have lost re-election bids in the living memory of any Iowa adult. The last one, Democrat Chet Culver, faced voters in the aftermath of the “Great Recession.” In all likelihood, the U.S. economy will be growing in 2022, and therefore voters who see things moving in the “right direction” will vastly outnumber those who see us “on the wrong track.”

As governor, Reynolds can generate massive media coverage on almost any topic of her choosing. Almost any radio station would give her air time whenever she wants to call in. She can guarantee front-page coverage in local newspapers and time on television newscasts by scheduling official visits and other events around the state, without spending a dime from her campaign.

Speaking of the governor’s campaign funds…

Reynolds already has a large war chest

The governor’s campaign had more than $2 million in the bank at the beginning of 2021, according to documents filed with Iowa’s campaign regulator. Since Iowa has no campaign contribution limits, Reynolds’ many large donors (who helped her raise nearly $1.6 million in 2020) can keep writing five-figure checks.

No Democrats have announced plans to run for governor. Some potential candidates, such as State Auditor Rob Sand, could surely raise enough to run a credible statewide campaign. But it’s unlikely the party will nominate someone with Hubbell’s ability to self-fund and raise large sums from others.

Also, following the carnage for Democrats up and down the ticket in 2020, it will be harder to persuade national groups that Iowa is competitive enough to be worth a large investment in 2022.

Reynolds’ campaign bank account will allow her to saturate radio and television stations with ads putting a good spin on her record and trashing her Democratic challenger. Thanks to conservative dominance of talk radio in every Iowa market, plenty of radio hosts will bolster those messages.

Republicans have also been propping up the Iowa Field Report website, created by GOP operative Luke Martz in early 2020. The governor’s campaign spent a total of $25,000 for advertising on the site last year, and the Republican Party of Iowa also spent $25,000 to advertise there. (The pro-Joni Ernst group Iowa Values, which does not report its fundraising or spending, was frequent advertiser on the site as well.)

$25,000 seems well above the going rate to run some banner ads on a new political website. Martz, who writes much of Iowa Field Report’s published material, told Bleeding Heartland last month that he determines the site’s advertising rates. He didn’t answer questions about whether those rates are based on a fair market value, or whether reported campaign spending on his site encompasses editorial content as well as images that are obviously paid advertisements.

Any thoughts about the 2022 governor’s race are welcome in this thread.

Top image: Cropped from a photo posted on Governor Kim Reynolds’ official Facebook page.

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