Is Louisiana with Edwards on the Issues?
With just under six months until Election Day in Louisiana, it is high time to start examining every political or policy event in the state through the prism of the gubernatorial contest, right? It’s what political watchers do to pass the time through the spring and summer even though most state residents are probably paying scant attention to the campaign. The Louisiana Survey, an annual project of the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communications top track public opinion in the state, is no exception.
At first blush, this year’s installment appears to provide a bevy of solidly positive news for Governor John Bel Edwards. Large majorities of state resident back Medicaid expansion and criminal justice reform – signature accomplishments from his first years in office – as well as raising the minimum wage and boosting teacher pay – key proposals in his current legislative agenda.
Political watchers have taken notice.
Stephanie Grace, writer for The Advocate, makes the most compelling case for this interpretation of the survey’s results. It is difficult to dispute her argument – after all, what incumbent governor seeking reelection would not want widespread public support for his key initiatives?
Nevertheless, I am going to push back on this argument…just a bit. Although I would be hard-pressed to say that I see a lot of bad news for the governor in the results, I will highlight a few potential vulnerabilities that lurk just beneath the surface.
Before getting to that, however, two caveats…
One, I am the primary author of the Louisiana Survey and have been since 2015. I am committed to high quality social scientific inquiry and dispassionately following the data where they lead without fear or favor. At the same time, it would be disingenuous of me to pretend I have no vested interest in maintaining the reputation of the Louisiana Survey as a high quality, non-partisan, relevant, and valuable enterprise.
Two, as Grace points out, the Louisiana Survey is not an election survey. We ask neither trial heat questions nor questions about approval of political figures – be they John Bel Edwards, Bobby Jindal, or Jeff Landry. There are plenty of polls out there to track vote intentions and approval. Our hope is to offer a richer portrait of the public mind – the thinking that underlies those vote intentions and assessments of public figures among the citizenry of Louisiana.
With those caveats in mind, make what you will of my comments below.
Happy with criminal justice reform, but not the criminal justice system
First, criminal justice reform is widely popular. Seventy percent of state residents approve of the changes Edwards and the legislature backed in 2017. Most Republicans in the state (60 percent) back the changes.
What is the potential bad news here for the governor? Few people are currently satisfied with the state of the criminal justice system today. Only 32 percent think the system is fair. Likewise, only 32 percent think the system is effective at keeping communities safe. Those are not even the same 32 percent. Fewer than one in five state residents (18 percent) think the system is both fair and effective at keeping us safe. Similarly, in 2018, when we last asked people if they thought crime in the state was increasing or decreasing, 68 percent said crime was on the rise over the previous five years.
Voters approve of the reform package, but, as of yet, the reforms have not resolved some of their concerns – over fairness and safety.
Medicaid expansion? What Medicaid expansion?
Second, Medicaid expansion is popular. So popular, in fact, it presents a tough problem for Edwards’s Republican opponents. Not only does a large majority (76 percent) of Louisianans overall approve of expansion, so does a majority of Republicans in the state (57 percent). At the same time, elected leaders in the national Republican Party have vociferously opposed the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” that allowed for expansion. In terms of expansion politics, Edwards can cite a falling uninsured rate and a positive economic impact – all while the federal government has (so far) largely footed the bill for expansion. His Republican opponents, meanwhile, must choose between giving credit to the governor for expanding Medicaid or risking comparison to an unpopular former governor who refused to expand Medicaid and alienating a sizable share of their own base.
Worse still, there are no obvious ways for challengers to reframe the issue. Eventually, Medicaid expansion will result in more cost to the state budget than what it pays today for expansion. This seems a natural line of attack for Republicans to take, but it will likely fall on deaf ears. The public does not seem worried about potential costs down the road. When we posed a version of the question that included a reference to potential costs to the state’s budget in the future, approval of expansion hardly budged – 73 percent approve of expansion with the future cost prompt.
What could possibly be bad news for the governor here? Louisianans may love the idea of Medicaid expansion, but only 35 percent even know the state has actually done it. The governor will have trouble benefiting politically from a popular policy move if voters do not know he made the move.
Taxes: Real and imagined
Among the major policy moves of his administration, the governor’s biggest vulnerability may be the budget compromises that resulted in a higher sales tax in 2016 and continuation of much of that increase in 2018.
Americans views of taxation are complex, and Louisianans are no exception. [For a remarkably deep and insightful treatment of the complexity in Americans’ thinking about taxes, check out Read My Lips by Vanessa Williamson of the Brookings Institution.]
It is a mistake simply to say that Louisianans are anti-tax. For example, in the 2017 Louisiana Survey we found that a majority of state residents thought their taxes were fair and only 37 percent felt they paid more than their fair share. In contrast, they felt upper-income earners and corporations were shirking on their tax burden. In recent years, the Louisiana Survey has also shown that Louisianans support taxes – even raising taxes – for specific policy aims such as education and transportation infrastructure.
At the same time, there is no denying that public opinion in the state, as a whole, is deeply skeptical of taxes in a general sense. For example, when asked in 2017 how to deal with a projected budget deficit, more said leaders should rely “only” or “mostly” on spending cuts (72 percent) than on tax hikes (20 percent). Similarly, when faced with recurring surpluses, more say leaders should focus “only” or “mostly” on tax cuts (56 percent) than on spending increases (36 percent).
How might this hurt the governor? Edwards struck a bargain with the state legislature to increase the state’s sales tax in 2016. Last year the governor and legislature agreed to roll back a portion of this increase – leaving the sales tax higher than when the governor took office. At the same time, the state’s marginal tax rates on personal and household income remained untouched.
Today, half of Louisianans say the state’s sales tax is too high. It has been a significant uptick since Edwards took office when it was only 32 percent.
Just as problematic for the governor, many think taxes have gone up – even when they have not.
Forty percent of Louisianans believe the state sales tax is higher today than it was a year ago – despite the fact that the governor and legislature trimmed it back in 2018.
Worse still, 46 percent think the state’s income tax rates have increased under Edwards.
One possible explanation for this pattern is that people are responding to changes in federal income tax policy that may have indirectly increased their state income taxes without any changes to state law. While many Louisianans likely saw an increase in the amount they paid in state income taxes for 2018 because of the federal tax shift, I am skeptical that this underlies their beliefs that state income tax rates increased in recent years for two reasons.
First, we asked a similar question in 2018 about whether income tax rates were higher than the year before – shortly after the change in the federal law but before well before participant would have seen much of its impact on their state income taxes. A similar share (39 percent) said state income taxes rates were then than in 2016. Second, the 2018 survey was already in the field as increases in withholdings from paychecks for state individual and household income taxes went into effect because of the new federal tax law. In fact, the new withholding amounts went into effect beginning February 16, 2018, midway through the field period for the 2018 survey’s data collection. A comparison of responses before and after this date reveal no differences in the share who thought state income tax rates went up – indicating responses to this question were not moved by the change in withholding. Third, other ways of measuring what Louisianans know about basic facts of state income tax rates show they are poorly informed. For example, most Louisiana residents do not appear to know that the state’s income taxes are lower than in most other states. Thirty-eight percent of Louisianans think the state’s income taxes on individuals and households are higher than in most other states – a perception of state taxes that is difficult to square with the facts. Whether measured by individual and household income tax payments per-capita or by the share of state revenue coming from these taxes, Louisiana income taxes are lower than in most other states according to the Tax Foundation.
A more likely explanation for why so many Louisianans think their state income tax rates have gone up under Edwards is that they are misinformed. That is a problem for Edwards. If people think he is responsible for an unpopular tax, they may punish him for it – even if it is just a figment of their imaginations.
The economy? Glass half full or half empty?
Perhaps more than any other issue, voters’ sense of the economy often plays an important role in which candidate they back. So, how do Louisianans feel about the state’s economy? Um, well, not great.
Only two percent say it is “excellent” and just another 18 percent even say it is “good.” In contrast, about half (47 percent) say it is “only fair” and 32 percent say it is “poor.”
Yeah, that is not what you’d like to see as an incumbent.
But, the research says people especially pay attention to the trend in the economy rather than the quality at any one point in time. Here the data are decidedly…
… mixed. Each side can pick it’s own good news.
On one hand, only 25 percent of Louisiana residents think the economy today is getting better than where it was a year ago; slightly more (29 percent, although the difference is not statistically significant) say it is worse. That is not where you would choose to be as an incumbent governor.
Then again… it could be worse. We know this because it recently was worse.
Figure 1 shows the net retrospective evaluations of the state economy since 2003. In other words, it displays the difference between the percent who say the state’s economy is better than the previous year and the percent who say the state’s economy is worse than a year ago.
From this perspective, evaluations are underwater but improving. Indeed, net evaluations of the economy are better than in 2011 when Bobby Jindal was re-elected.
Make of that what you will.