PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - Rhode Island is finally at the top of a set of national rankings, but Gov. Lincoln Chafee probably isn't too happy about it.
Chafee is the most unpopular governor in the United States who's up for re-election in 2014, according to an analysis published Monday by The New York Times' influential FiveThirtyEight blog, which tracks political polls and projects election outcomes.
Just 28% of Rhode Island voters approve of Chafee's job performance, while 68% disapprove, giving the independent governor a net job approval rating of negative 40 percentage points. The next most-unpopular governor, Illinois Democrat Pat Quinn, has a comparatively healthy net approval rating of negative 24.
Chafee said Tuesday he still plans to run for re-election. "The election's a long way away," the governor told WPRI.com. A WPRI 12 poll last October found only 18% of voters definitely plan to vote for him again.
"The numbers that we're looking at are the biggest drop in unemployment on record," Chafee said, referring to last month's decrease in the state jobless rate from 9.8% to 9.4%. "We're going in the right direction on the numbers I care about."
In the past Chafee has also suggested his low approval ratings are related to the fact that he doesn't have a party base as an independent, and unfavorable media coverage he's received.
Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at The Cook Political Report in Washington, expressed astonishment at how low Chafee's approval numbers are, saying governors rarely fall below 30%.
"To see a governor who has not been bogged down by ethics problems or other scandal this low is stunning," Duffy, a Rhode Island native, told WPRI.com on Tuesday. However, she said the numbers are less surprising considering Chafee won office with only 36% of the vote in a four-way race.
"But it does show that not only hasn't he been able to expand that base of support, it's shrunk," Duffy said.
WPRI 12 political analyst Joe Fleming, who's been tracking Rhode Island politics for more than three decades, said he couldn't recall any other governor in recent history logging approval ratings this poor.
"Ed DiPrete's numbers were low towards the end, Bruce Sundlun's numbers got low, but I don't remember them getting this low," Fleming said. "And they've been constantly low since he became the governor, and they haven't improved in his first two years in office."
Yet both Duffy and Fleming said Chafee still has a chance to win a second term - because he's likely to be running in a multi-candidate race once again, with at least three and potentially four major contenders on the ballot: Chafee plus a Democrat, a Republican, and a candidate from the nascent Moderate Party, potentially Ken Block for a second time.
"Chafee is still a viable candidate," Fleming said. "If it was a two-person race the situation would be totally different, but with a Democrat, a Republican, probably a Moderate Party person and an independent Lincoln Chafee, you only need about 35% or 36% of the vote to win."
Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island teachers union and a crucial Chafee ally in 2010, dismissed the idea that Chafee can't win a second four-year term, saying: "There's plenty of time between now and Election Day, and a lot of variables."
Walsh pointed out that last November Democratic Congressman David Cicilline surprised many observers - including his own campaign team - when he won a 12-point victory over Republican Brendan Doherty despite low approval ratings following Providence's financial crisis.
"Favorability ratings and ability to get elected do not have as high a correlation as the popular media likes to think," Walsh said. He added: "We can rate you fair but still vote for you to do the job, and we've seen that time and time again."
The biggest question is which candidates Chafee will face on the November 2014 ballot.
On the Democratic side, both Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras are strong contenders, while former Auditor General Ernie Almonte has already announced his candidacy. Among Republicans, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung is expected to throw his hat into the ring, and Brendan Doherty has also kept the door open to a candidacy. Meanwhile, Block has promised that the Moderate Party he founded will field a candidate even if it's not him.
For Chafee, "the question is, can he put together coalitions like he did two years ago to get him that high again?" Fleming asked. "He has to work on that. Two years ago he had a great deal of union support - right now that's very questionable, whether that would be there for him."
Fleming also said Taveras could cut into Chafee's support among minority voters, while Fung would start out with higher name recognition than 2010 Republican candidate John Robitaille. Raimondo already has $1.3 million in her campaign war chest, though Chafee could tap into his wife's family fortune to fund his campaign, as he did to the tune of $1.6 million in 2010.
Walsh compared the governor's race to the NCAA basketball tournament, with Chafee and Block getting into the final round automatically while the Democratic and Republican contenders battle for the nomination in their party primaries. "We might have a 'Final Four' in the governor's race," he said.
Duffy said the situation would be different if Chafee was only facing one other candidate. "He cannot win a two-way race - he gets creamed," she said. She compared Chafee's situation to that of Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a conservative Republican who won a multiway race in 2010 with 38% of the vote. The Times analysis showed LePage has a net approval rating of negative 12.
"Multi-candidate races behave very strangely," Duffy said.
The chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, Vt. Gov. Peter Shumlin, made headlines last month when he encouraged Chafee to join the Democratic Party, fueling a new round of speculation that the liberal ex-Republican governor could make the switch. But Duffy said she's skeptical because doing so might actually hurt Chafee's chances.
"There's no upside for him electorally," she said. "One, we don't know that he can get out of a primary. ... Second, it changes the whole dynamic, and what you'd end up having is maybe two major-party candidates and a third-party candidate who gets 10% of the vote. That doesn't do him much good."
According to Chafee spokeswoman Christine Hunsinger, the governor isn't thinking about these issues yet.
"The governor's focused on doing his job, not paying attention to polls or politics at this point," she said. "We're way far out from election time. The numbers are what the numbers are, but the governor comes to work every day to move Rhode Island forward."
Copyright WPRI 12
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