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Governors of Large States are Less Popular

Nate recently noted that, as the economic crunch as continued, the approval ratings of governors have been dropping in many states. This reminded me of some graphs I made last year showing governors’ approval as a function of state population:

The data came from Survey USA and Rasmussen. (Note added in response to one of the commenters: The numbers currently on the Rasmussen site are updated from those of last year, which I used in making the above graph. That’s why the current numbers differ from those shown in my plot.)

At the time of making those graphs, my point was to show that Sarah Palin’s much-trumpeted popularity as governor of Alaska was not as exceptional as people might have thought, given the small population of the state. Alaska is on the left side of both graphs above. That’s Frank Murkowski with the sub-25% approval in 2006 (edged out only by Ohio’s Bob Taft), and Sarah Palin with the high rating in 2008.

It seems to be easier to maintain high approval in a small state. What’s going on? Some theories: in a large state, there will be more ambitious politicians on the other side, eager to knock off the incumbent governor; small states often have part-time legislatures and thus the governor is involved in less political conflict; small states (notably Alaska) tend to get more funds per capita from the federal government, and it’s easier to be popular when you can disburse more funds; large states tend to be more heterogeneous and so it’s harder to keep all the voters happy. As the graphs show, the pattern isn’t perfect, but it looks real to me. Next step is to get data from other years.

A similar point applies to Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer on the Democratic side. His popularity is impressive but nothing super-special considering he’s in a small state.

Richard Niemi, Thad Beyle, and Lee Sigelman have prepared a more comprehensive dataset of job approval ratings. Shigeo Hirano and I used these to create a few more graphs showing popularity and state sizes in previous years:

These are kind of hard to read, but the point is that governors are typically less popular on average in larger states, but not in every year.

Shigeo was also wondering if people in small states were just more approving of politicians in general, and so we made these maps showing approval ratings of various national political figures by state. In these maps, dark and light colors represent higher and lower popularities:

I don’t see much of a pattern with state size here, which suggests that people in small states really are more likely to favor their local representation. (Not always–see the many counterexamples in the graphs at the top of this post–but on average, at least compared to governors of large states.)

Perhaps something to think about as 2012 and 2016 roll around. . . .