The headline numbers in the new Brown University poll are bad – really bad – for Congressman Cicilline and Governor Chafee. But there are other ways to analyze the results that look slightly better, though still pretty bad, for the two incumbents.
Political practitioners have long complained about “the science” of surveys that generate job approval ratings by asking voters to rate an official’s job performance as either “excellent,” “good,” “fair”/”only fair” or “poor.” Their argument is that while “only fair” isn’t a huge vote of confidence, it’s not necessarily a sign of out-and-out disapproval, either.
Evidently, Brown disagrees – the university lumps together “excellent” and “good” to create the metric it calls an approval rating. But by digging into the detailed breakdown of the poll, we can take another look at the numbers and what they say about local leaders’ standing among voters.
One way to do that is to strip out three of the four ratings and just look at the share of voters who describe each politician’s job performance as “poor,” which is clearly negative. While that probably understates the level of disapproval, perhaps Chafee (45%) and Cicilline (43%) can take solace that a majority don’t think they’re doing a poor job:
Of course, just looking at “poor” misses other nuances, including the strength of approval. Treasurer Raimondo, for example, is rated “excellent” by 33% of voters, while Cicilline is rated “excellent” by just 2%. Chafee’s “excellent” rating is 6%, only one point below Senator Whitehouse’s.
Then there’s the issue of whether those polled have opinions at all.
Part of why Chafee’s numbers look so stark is because nearly every voter has made up his or her mind about the governor. Only 4.3% of voters answered “don’t know” or “not sure” when asked to grade Chafee’s job performance, just 2.8 points more than the number who said that about President Obama, whom we can all agree is pretty well-known.
One way to deal with that is to create a “weak approval rating” metric by lumping together the share of Rhode Islanders who rate each leaders’ job performance as “excellent,” “good” and “only fair.” Chafee has a “weak approval rating” of 51%, surpassing Cicilline by 11 points:
Combining those three responses burnishes Mayor Taveras even more, giving him a whopping 81% “weak approval rating.” It also brings Senator Reed, usually the bellwether in these polls, up to 75%. It puts Raimondo at 74%, Obama at 70%, Whitehouse at 60% and, intriguingly, gives Speaker Fox an 8-point lead over Senate President Paiva Weed.
Again, it’s important to keep some perspective. Just as looking only at “poor” ratings probably understates disapproval, looking at all three of these ratings together probably overstates approval, because some of those “only fair” responses are likely a negative judgment.
Still, the “weak approval” number may give a useful indication of whether people could be persuaded to vote for an incumbent. As Marc Comtois pointed out on Twitter, “in Rhode Island, where the power of incumbency is very important, it seems more realistic” to take a nuanced view of the “fair” rating when analyzing the poll.
In the governor’s case, Chafee’s “excellent”/”good” approval rating puts him at an anemic 23%, but adding “only fair” more than doubles that to 51% – not a very good showing, to be sure, but an indication he could have room to grow his support.
The bump for Cicilline by adding “only fair” is much smaller, bringing him to 39%. In the congressman’s case, the question is what the numbers would be if Brown had only surveyed the 1st Congressional District, and how they translate into votes for him versus Republican Brendan Doherty or potential primary challenger Anthony Gemma.
• Related: Cicilline, Chafee approval ratings now worse than Nixon in 1974 (Feb. 23)