Governor Taft’s popularity in free fall, Republican’s support slips to historic levels

The Columbus Dispatch – October 2, 2005

Not Jimmy Carter during the Iranian hostage crisis.

Not Harry S. Truman after firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Not even Richard Nixon before resigning during Watergate.

The three most-unpopular presidents in the history of American public-opinion polling never had an approval rating as low as Ohioans are giving Gov. Bob Taft in a new Dispatch Poll.

A mere 15 percent approve of the way the GOP governor is handling his job. The remaining 85 percent disapprove, including almost half who do so “strongly.”

Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll in Princeton, N.J., expressed surprise that approval could dip so low for anyone who has won a major office.

“Almost any figure who’s elected in a partisan election usually has at least some support from his party,” he said. “Usually there’s a party base. It’s hard mathematically to get that low.”

However, nearly three-fourths of GOP poll-takers registered disapproval of Taft, who is in his seventh year as governor.

Generally accepted political polling began in the mid-1900s. Truman set the Gallup low for presidents, dropping to 23 percent in 1951 and early 1952. Carter slumped to 28 percent in 1978, and Nixon was at 24 percent when he quit in 1974.

“We’ve never had a presidential approval rating in the teens,” Newport said.

Although much has been made of President Bush’s faltering approval in recent months, his rating has never dropped below 39 percent in any major national poll.

A database maintained by the the University of Rochester, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and George Washington University lists 3,261 gubernatorial polls since 1958. Only three governors had an approval rating below 15 percent — none in the past 15 years.

The previous low in the universities’ database for an Ohio governor preceding Taft was Richard F. Celeste, who sank to 32 percent in April 1983. The Democrat rebounded to ratings in the 60s just a couple of years later, however.

Poll participant Robb Brown, 45, of Sylvania, says Taft’s biggest problem is a lack of leadership.

“Taft is clueless. It’s hard to take the guy seriously. He doesn’t carry himself like a governor. He doesn’t talk like a governor. It’s like someone winds him up and he delivers a speech,” said Brown, who owns several auto dealerships.

Taft was convicted of four criminal ethics charges in August for violating the Ohio law that requires elected officials to tell the public about all gifts worth more than $75. He was fined $4,000 for failing to disclose dozens of golf outings and other favors.

Since his sentencing, more undisclosed gifts have surfaced, but he won’t be prosecuted because of the plea deal he struck with prosecutors as he became the first convicted criminal in Ohio history to serve as governor.

“I’m not happy with any politician that does things that aren’t right, and I think he should have resigned,” said respondent Julie Solomon. “Wrong is wrong and I don’t care what political party you’re involved in.”

Solomon, a 45-year-old school-bus driver who lives near Glenford in Perry County, said she voted for Taft in 2002. He was re-elected with 58 percent of the vote, 20 points more than Democratic Cuyahoga County Commissioner Timothy F. Hagan.

But the poll shows only 25 percent of those who voted for Taft three years ago now approve of his performance.

“What is he doing as governor? He always seems to blend into the wallpaper,” said Sarah Hansen, 26, an artist from Hilliard. She said she voted reluctantly for Taft in 2002 because she felt she didn’t have another choice.

Jim Wilson, 34, who operates an insurance agency in Youngstown, said, “I’m a strong Republican but I don’t think he’s done a good job” pushing the party’s agenda.

Wilson said he has been disappointed by the governor’s ethics convictions and scandals at the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation — in which hundreds of millions of dollars have been lost through questionable investments — that have caused problems for the entire party.

“It’s the whole package,” Wilson said.

The ethics and investment scandals apparently have taken a toll; Taft’s rating has dropped 24 points in less than a year from a statewide Dispatch Poll conducted in late October 2004.

Last month, a telephone poll of central Ohioans for The Dispatch by Saperstein Associates generated a Taft approval rating of 26 percent.

SurveyUSA, a firm based in Verona, N.J., that uses automated calls to gauge public approval of governors in all 50 states, lists no other chief executive at less than 30 percent.

Taft staff members pooh-poohed SurveyUSA’s finding earlier this year that Taft’s 19 percent approval rating was the nation’s worst.

Although Taft doesn’t have to worry about re-election because he is barred from a third consecutive term, the low approval ratings do exact a political toll.

Last summer, Democrat Paul Hackett nearly won a heavily Republican congressional district near Cincinnati after airing ads labeling his GOP opponent as a politician “in the Bob Taft mold” who would “take Columbus’ corruption to Washington.”

Although Taft’s coveted Third Frontier proposal is part of state Issue 1 on the Nov. 8 ballot, he is not the front man for that measure — as he was in a campaign two years ago — former Democratic Sen. John Glenn is. Nor is he among the 19 co-chairmen, or a regional chairman or a county chairman. Instead, Taft was relegated last week to being listed among 293 public officials supporting the issue.

Even some of those who approve of Taft’s performance — only 2 percent do so “strongly” — sound less than enthusiastic.

Matthew Wheeler, 18, a Sinclair Community College student from Beavercreek, said he approves of the job Taft has done “to an extent.”

Melinda Majers Lewis, 51, of Columbus, was philosophical about Taft’s legal woes.

“Everybody makes mistakes and I don’t think anybody ever really tells all the truth,” she said.

“At least he ‘fessed up to it and owned up to it.”