Gov. Corbett's low poll numbers are not unprecedented and may not be a bad sign

Posted: June 26, 2012

After a year and a half as governor, he already was being mocked by his Harrisburg foes as "One-Term Tom."

How could he possibly get reelected?

He was at odds with fellow Republicans in the legislature, unable to get his major programs passed.

A Keystone Poll showed that just 35 percent of voters viewed him favorably.

The year was 1996, and the governor was Tom Ridge.

Today, another Tom - Tom Corbett - sits in the governor's office. He too has had difficulty with his own GOP. His poll numbers have slipped to where Ridge's were at a comparable point. Most of several dozen Pennsylvanians approached recently by a reporter said they had little sense of him, except as the guy with white hair in 2010 campaign TV ads.

"I think he's in for one term, and he's going to be gone," said a critic, John Collins, 39, a chef from Gulph Mills.

But Corbett could take some solace in knowing that, after a rough second year in office, Ridge regained his bearings. He steamrollered his way to a second term, winning 66 of 67 counties.

In fact, all three of Corbett's predecessors - Ed Rendell, Ridge, and Robert P. Casey - had favorable ratings below 50 percent in their second year. And all won second terms.

Democrat Rendell, elected in 2002, had a favorable rating of 46 percent in an August 2004 Keystone Poll, although his numbers had started to rise. In 2006, he won with 60 percent of the vote over Republican Lynn Swann.

Ridge, elected in 1994, had a favorable rating of 35 percent in July 1996. In 1998, he won with 58 percent of the vote over two foes: Democrat Ivan Itkin and Constitutional Party candidate Peg Luksik.

Casey, a Democrat now deceased, was elected in 1986. Tony May, his communications director, says that because of health questions and his initial "inability to work with members of the General Assembly . . . his performance rating fell below 50 percent."

Yet, in 1990, Casey won with 68 percent of the vote.

Only if a governor is not recovering after the midpoint of his four-year term may he be in trouble.

Just last week, Corbett began to make progress by reaching the outlines of a budget deal with legislators. He apparently had to give way on steep spending cuts he was proposing for universities and public schools. But he gained likely expansion of a program giving tax breaks to businesses that donate tuition for private education.

"You come into office with high expectations, and the honeymoon fades," May said. "People start figuring out that, 'What I thought I heard you say [in the election campaign] was not what you meant.'

"I think that is Tom Corbett's current problem," May said. "He said he wasn't going to raise taxes. He said he was going to cut waste.

"But people didn't hear him say he was going to cut programs. . . . that here in Harrisburg we would have to cut football and band."

Two recent public polls showed Corbett with a long climb.

A Quinnipiac University survey found that 36 percent of registered voters approved of the job he was doing, down from 50 percent in the fall.

A Keystone Poll by Franklin and Marshall College found that 32 percent rated Corbett favorably; 34 percent rated him unfavorably; 29 percent didn't know what to say.

Pollsters concluded that spending cuts were more popular than tax hikes. But there was a warning for Corbett.

"Only one in five [voters] favors reducing spending on human services programs, local school districts, or the state's Keystone recreation, park and conservation fund," a Keystone Poll memo said.

Corbett has proposed cuts in all those areas.

Still, it would be a victory for Corbett if the budget was adopted by the June 30 deadline at the end of this week. He could claim two straight on-time budgets without the uncertainty and stop-gap spending that characterized the Rendell years.

With tax revenue coming in higher than expected, many GOP legislators, as well as Democrats, balked at broad spending cuts. All House seats and half of Senate seats come up for election this fall.

Corbett, who does not have to run and who said he was nervous about weak economic recovery, would prefer to stand pat on his cuts.

The budget is not final, but it looks as if several hundred million in spending will be restored to a $27.66 billion plan.

Corbett has been unable, so far, to deliver on major campaign promises to provide vouchers for private education and get rid of state-owned liquor stores.

He might have gotten vouchers last year if he had not devoted political capital to fighting taxes or fees on Marcellus Shale gas drilling - popular with the public. He eventually agreed to an impact fee to compensate communities for road damage.

Controversy in Harrisburg is not necessarily heard in the hinterlands. For much of the public, especially in the southeastern part of the state, Corbett is an enigma.

A reporter touring parts of the Philadelphia region, plus GOP-friendly Lancaster County, found some residents who felt strongly about education cuts. Reduced funding from Harrisburg - much of it resulting from an end to the federal stimulus program - has hit every school board.

"He promised something - not raise taxes - and he's going to do it, no matter what," said Bob Corcoran, a retired teacher from Elverson. "He's going to do it at the expense of everybody else."

But holding the line on taxes was important to Randy Knauer, 49, of Intercourse, a truck driver.

"Everybody around here, their wages have been cut as far as overtime, and we don't get pay raises," he said. "I think increasing taxes would be the wrong thing."

Four of every five people the reporter talked to in parking lots, at bus stops, and outside stores had only marginal familiarity.

"I really don't know who that is," said Trish Sutton, of West Philadelphia.

"I don't know him," said a man waiting, like Sutton, for a bus at the J.C. Penney store in the King of Prussia mall.

"I don't even know who that is," said a young woman in a McDonald's uniform.

Kevin Harley, the governor's spokesman, said low awareness of Corbett at this point is not necessarily bad.

"People lead busy lives," he said, "and the fact that they are going about their lives, doing their jobs, taking care of their families, without having to think of state government . . . Gov. Corbett would probably say that's a good thing."

Chris Bravacos, who was deputy legislative secretary for Ridge, said Corbett was smart to dig in his heels now. He'll have time to work on his polls before the 2014 election.

"There is a reason governors are elected for four years," he said. "If their numbers aren't good, it's because they are making some hard choices. You make your hard choices early when you have a chance to get things done."


Contact Tom Infield at 610-313-8205, tinfield@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @tinfield.

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