Voter Disapproval of Jindal Did Not Give Policy Mandate to Edwards
Governor Jindal will leave office next month as one of Louisiana’s – and, perhaps, the nation’s – least popular governors in recent history. A comparison of governors’ approval ratings across states places Jindal second to last. In the Morning Consult comparison, his approval was at 35% and his disapproval at 60%. Morning Consult does not provide many details about their polling methodology, but the findings are consistent with what other polls have shown.
“Nixon Levels” of Disapproval
A November poll from the University of New Orleans (UNO) had Jindal at 20% approval and 70% disapproval – prompting this comparison from 538’s Harry Enten:
Earlier this year, a Southern Media and Opinion Research poll had 32% of Louisiana voters with a positive rating of the governor and 65% with a negative rating.
In short, he is polling as poorly as Governor Blanco did after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the state.
Another common metric for citizen satisfaction with their political leadership is the question about the direction of the state: “Do you think the state is heading in the right direction or the wrong direction?” Louisiana State University’s Public Policy Research Lab (where I work) has tracked this sentiment for more than a decade. After falling over the previous two years, the share of respondents who believe the state is heading in the wrong direction rose from 45% in January to 54% in September. The November UNO poll painted an even more pessimistic picture, with 67% saying the state is heading in the wrong direction.
It is not all bad news for Jindal. His exit from the presidential race has done his in-state poll numbers some good. In the Louisiana Election Panel Study, a project of the Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication, my colleague Martin Johnson and I interviewed the same set of voters twice in the closing weeks of the gubernatorial campaign. As it turned out, these interviews came right before and right after Jindal quit his presidential run. Sure enough, Jindal’s favorability ratings came up slightly after he dropped out, at least among Republican voters.
Voters Rejected Jindal…
The dissatisfaction played a role in the gubernatorial contest. John Bel Edwards benefited from an electorate that was disgruntled with the direction of the state and the performance of the governor. Although it does not get as much attention as partisanship, the public’s satisfaction with an incumbent governor is also a “fundamental” factor in state elections.
Polling during the campaign bears this out. In the UNO poll, Edwards bested Vitter 66-25 among voters who disapproved of Jindal performance, while Vitter had the upper hand among those who approved of the governor’s performance, 58-35.
The crosstabs are suggestive, but not definitive. Opinions of the governor overlap with other factors that also shape voter decision-making: Partisanship, ideology, policy positions, etc. So, it would be a mistake to credit the difference entirely to governor approval.
To get a sense of how much anti-Jindal sentiment mattered in the election, I used the Louisiana Election Panel Study, which includes measures for a number of these other factors. After controlling for voters’ partisanship, ideology, policy opinions, and perceptions of the candidates’ traits, an unfavorable opinion of Jindal is associated with about a six percentage point higher likelihood of voting for Edwards.
… But Not Necessarily His Policies
So, a lot of voters disliked the sitting governor and this dislike translated into votes. It’s tempting to go one more step and say that voters are demanding a new policy direction. When victorious candidates claim that the voters have given them a mandate, they are taking this step.
The difficulty is that just because a large number of voters share an antipathy for Jindal this does not mean they share a common policy agenda. Consider the governor’s broad view of government. He has consistently expressed a preference for smaller government. Do voters who are unhappy with how the state is doing under his leadership disagree with him?
Some do and some don’t. When looking just at respondents in the 2015 Louisiana Survey who said the state is heading in the wrong direction, 50% said they prefer a smaller government offering fewer services. Think about that: Half of the voters who are upset with how the government of the state is doing under Jindal's leadership share his vision about what the government should be.
Or, consider Jindal’s handling of state finances. Over eight years, the Jindal administration has favored spending cuts – particularly to higher education and health care – over tax increases to deal with repeated budget deficits. Surely, if voters are upset over where Jindal has taken the state they must disagree with him on this, right?
Not quite. Most of these disgruntled voters also opposed increases to personal income taxes or corporate taxes. On the other hand, 73% of them want more spending on higher education and 59% want more spending on health care.
Many of the voters who are dissatisfied with the Jindal also disagree with his vision for the state and his policy choices. Forty-three percent of them want a larger government that offers more services. Similarly, 65% of them support Medicaid expansion, which Governor Jindal opposes.
The point is that these voters – despite their shared antipathy toward Jindal – do not offer a cohesive voice on the issues.
Landslide, but No Mandate
Dissatisfaction with Jindal helped Edwards bring together a broad coalition of support. But, as is the very definition of ‘broad coalition’, these voters cut across a diversity of political opinions. During the fall campaign, a voter who said the state is heading in the wrong direction was about as likely to be a Republican or lean toward the Republican Party (39%) as to be a Democrat or lean to the Democrats (42%). Ideologically, 37% of these voters saw themselves as closer to David Vitter than to Edwards; only slightly more (44%) saw themselves as closer to Edwards than Vitter.
These different perspectives mean they likely have very different reasons for their dissatisfaction with the Jindal Administration. It would be surprising if a conservative fiscal-hawk was upset with the Jindal administration for the same reasons as Democrat who wants more spending on health care.
Voters’ choice of Edwards over Republican David Vitter was in part a rejection of Jindal. But this rejection does not constitute a policy agenda.