Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Loving To Hate Pat Quinn: Why An Unpopular Democratic Governor Stands A Decent Chance At Re-election

Gov. Quinn struggles to meet-and-greet supporters as union members protest his policies at the 2012 Illinois State Fair. Photo courtesy of the A.P.

There have been twenty-two surveys of the 2014 Illinois Governor race since Republican businessman and challenger Bruce Rauner captured his party's nomination in March. Governor Pat Quinn has led in only two of them, averaging 39% across all twenty-two polls (a number that should strike fear in the heart of any incumbent).

The Huffington Post Pollster average puts the challenger ahead 46-44%, and gives Rauner a 53% chance of defeating Quinn in November - again, making it very clear that Quinn is receiving no benefit whatsoever from the power of incumbency. In fact, from a purely polling perspective, Quinn is one of the most vulnerable Governors and/or Senators in the country. His job job approval rating is awful (see here, here, & here as well). Only Tom Corbett, Sam Brownback, Dan Malloy, and Mary Landrieu trail their opponents by a larger margin on Pollster.

Fortunately for Democrats, Pat Quinn has proven himself quite resilient in the face of awful polling and brutal political headwinds before.

Look no further than four years ago, when after a bitter contest and razor-thin victory in the Democratic primary, Pat Quinn was elected to his own full term as Governor, having stepped into the role in 2009 after former Gov. Blagojevich was famously removed from office. His job approval ratings that year were disastrous, even on the eve of the election. The general election head-to-head numbers were horrendous. Of the thirty-three publicly released polls following the Feb 2, 2010 primaries, Quinn trailed his Republican challenger in ALL but two. The final Pollster average in 2010 found Bill Brady (R) ahead by eight points. The final RCP average found Brady up five points. Pollster and Real Clear Politics even picked up on a last minute surge for Brady! They were obviously wrong, as Governor Quinn went on to win 47-46%. And it was arguably the largest polling miss of the 2010 cycle (ranking right up there with the infamously incorrectly polled Nevada Senate race between Harry Reid and Sharon Angle).

Further complicating things for Republican chances at picking up this Governorship this year, the most prolific pollster to date in the Illinois race, We Ask America, has somewhat of a problematic track record, particularly in Illinois. Not to mention the fact that they make up 36% of all Illinois Governor polls taken since the March 18th primary. To date, their results have been highly favorable to Bruce Rauner. Out of their eight surveys taken since the March 18 primary, Rauner has led in all of them, by as little as three points, and as much as fourteen.

Great news for the GOP, right? Well, not when you consider that We Ask America's only two surveys of the 2010 Illinois Governor race found Republican challenger Bill Brady ahead by ten and fifteen points, the latter of which was Brady's largest poll lead of the entire cycle.

This isn't to pick on We Ask America. As noted above, all of the pollsters were off in this race in 2010. Rasmussen Reports final poll on October 20, 2010 found Brady ahead of Quinn by eight points, which also happened to be the final Pollster average. PPP, Fox News, YouGov, the Chicago Tribune, and literally every other pollster in the final weeks of the 2010 campaign missed the mark, and none of them projected the actual winner.

So while the Democrats are again in the position of having to defend an unpopular Governor and unpopular President in an unfriendly political environment, history would suggest you should not underestimate Governor Pat Quinn. In 2010, polling that consistently favored the Republican challenger the entire time wound up being wrong. Given that, Governor Quinn may be the happiest (and luckiest) vulnerable incumbent running this year.

One final note: the three most recent surveys are all good news for Gov. Quinn. The first Chicago Tribune poll of the cycle finds Quinn surging into an eleven point, 48-37% lead over Rauner - easily his largest lead of both the 2014 and 2010 elections. A Global Strategy Group poll done on behalf of the Democratic Governor Association also finds a rare Quinn lead of 43-40%. Finally, a nearly brand-new We Ask America survey actually finds Rauner ahead 44-41%, but notes that the new figures represent a significant tightening from their last poll just three weeks ago when Rauner led Quinn 46-37%.

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