Gov. Nikki Haley’s less-than-stellar job-approval rating could make her vulnerable in a re-election bid in 2014, though she has time to convince skeptics to give her another four-year term, political experts said Wednesday.
For the third time in a year, Haley could not crack 40 percent in job approval among South Carolinians, according to a poll from Winthrop University released Wednesday.
Democratic President Barack Obama, trounced in the Republican state during last month’s general election, received higher approval marks than the first-term GOP governor. But Winthrop poll organizers cautioned against comparing the two since more survey respondents did not have an opinion about Haley.
“There is some weakness there,” veteran S.C. political consultant Steve Fooshe said of Haley’s job-approval numbers.
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After nearly two years in office, 38.3 percent of those surveyed by Winthrop last week said that they approved of the governor’s performance; 41.3 percent disapproved. Still, Haley’s job-approval number is higher than in Winthrop polls in April and a year ago, when the poll found Haley’s job approval rating at 34.6 percent.
Since the last Winthrop poll was released, Haley has received acclaim for her prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention. But she also has watched her signature government-reform bill stonewalled by foes and endured a public airing of ethics charges dating from her time as a state representative from Lexington County.
Most recently, Haley has grappled with criticism over the state’s handling of the theft by hackers of sensitive financial information belonging to 6.4 million consumers and businesses from the S.C. Department of Revenue.
Haley, who was elected only narrowly in 2010, remains a polarizing figure, said Winthrop political scientist Scott Huffmon, who manages the school’s polls.
For instance, Haley’s out-of-state campaign trips for unsuccessful GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney were seen – by critics – as an example of her not paying enough attention to the state or – by supporters – as a sign that Haley is a rising GOP star, important enough to aid a national candidate.
“People who love her are fiercely loyal, and people who dislike her are just as passionate,” Huffmon said. “Not many people are middle of the road.”
‘Polls just don’t matter’
The governor’s approval numbers are roughly 50-50 in the latest Winthrop poll when eliminating people who had no opinion or refused to answer the question.
Fooshe and GOP political consultants Richard Quinn, both of Columbia, and Chip Felkel of Greenville said some candidates might see opportunity in challenging a governor with a less than 50 percent approval rating.
“She appears to be fairly safe in a primary,” said Quinn. “(But) a successful challenge in November (2014) is not out of realm of possibility.”
Fooshe said Haley’s 61.5 percent approval rate among Republicans – according to the poll – is “not a terrible number.” But he could see Haley’s popularity taking a hit if she faces a strong Republican primary foe.
“Two years in politics is a long time,” he said. “A lot can change.”
Haley could move to improve her numbers by building better relationships with the GOP-controlled Legislature, with which she has fought on occasion, or easing some of the sting from the massive data breach, the consultants said.
Haley told reporters Wednesday that she has not read the Winthrop poll.
“Polls just don’t matter,” she said. “It’s not something that interests me. The only poll that I care about are my jobs numbers,” a reference to her self-proclaimed focus on job creation.
No matter how voters rate Haley, “the most important metric is in the checkbook,” Quinn said.
Haley has more than $1 million on hand to fend off any 2014 opponent, and a pro-Haley political group has raised nearly $800,000 more in less than two years.
‘Shunning the label’
In a surprising result to political watchers, the S.C. Legislature received a thumbs up from those surveyed by Winthrop. For the first time in three Winthrop polls over the past year, more South Carolinians approved of lawmakers’ work than disapproved – 38 percent to 33 percent.
Huffmon said South Carolinians seemed to have shrugged off complaints about more than 250 challengers punted from ballots over an election-registration paperwork error that legislators have promised to fix.
“The Mayans have been calling about the end of the world,” Felkel responded in jest. “I hope the General Assembly will live up to their end of the bargain.”
In other results, the Winthrop poll found:
• Congress continued to get low marks – only a 13 percent approval rating.
• Obama’s 48 percent job approval number in South Carolina was better than the 44 percent he received in statewide voting in November. Huffmon said his results show Democrats might be missing an opportunity to win more S.C. voters.
• The Tea Party movement seems to be slowing – at least in name. The percentage of Republican registered voters who identify themselves as Tea Party members dropped to below 10 percent from 30 percent in 2010.
“They’re shunning the label, but they’re not shunning the idea,” Huffmon said.
Some political consultants question the Winthrop polls because they include non-registered voters. Republican strategist Luke Byars said he has seen polls with better job-approval numbers for Haley, citing her successful endorsements in races this year, including supporting new U.S. Rep. Tom Rice against former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer.
“She has a lot more support than people give her credit for,” Byars said. “It only matters what (voters) do in the ballot box.”
Huffmon said he cares about what all citizens think.
“It bothers me when people tell me elected officials don’t care about the general population,” he said. “They should.”
Winthrop polled 929 respondents from Nov. 25 through Sunday. Its poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.