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Brewer’s approval rating depends on definition of ‘fair’

How people define the word “fair” may make the difference in whether Gov. Jan Brewer’s approval rating among voters is abysmally low or relatively high.

Several polls on Brewer’s early job performance show mixed results, with one giving the governor high marks while others show a dismally low approval rating compared to her predecessors.

Polls by Rasmussen Reports and the Behavior Research Center underscore the contrast of results when surveying Arizona residents on their opinions of the governor. The Rasmussen poll, conducted on May 6, shows 51 percent of respondents approving of Brewer’s job performance, while the Behavior Research Center’s Rocky Mountain Poll, conducted from April 13-21, shows just 24 percent of respondents rating her performance as excellent or good, with 32 percent giving her an ambiguous “fair” rating.

A Cronkite-Eight poll, conducted in late April, put Brewer’s job approval rating at 36 percent, but shows 60 percent of registered voters support the governor’s temporary tax hike proposal.

The percentage of respondents who said they had no opinion on Brewer’s job performance fluctuated as well. Just 4 percent of Rasmussen respondents said they were “not sure” about Brewer’s job performance, compared to 18 percent in the Rocky Mountain Poll and 35 percent in the Cronkite-Eight poll who had no opinion.

The Rocky Mountain Poll compares Brewer’s approval number (24 percent) to the ratings given to former governors Janet Napolitano, 49 percent, and Jane Hull, 45 percent, at the same early stage in their tenures as governor. Twenty-four percent of respondents rated Napolitano as “fair” in April 2003, and 20 percent said the same of Hull in October 1997, compared to 32 percent for Brewer.

Jim Haynes, president of the Behavior Research Center, said Brewer may have received low ratings on the Rocky Mountain Poll because she has been “relatively low on the radar screen,” especially compared to Napolitano, who had high name recognition after several statewide campaigns, and Hull, who was largely viewed as a “knight on a white horse” after replacing the scandal-plagued Fife Symington, who resigned. The poll targeted heads of households, not all of whom were voters.

“In this case, she’s so new in the office and it’s hard to say whether they’re saying she’s doing a poor or very poor job because of the situation, or they’re more like saying, ‘I’m going to withhold any positive judgments until I see what she’s doing,’” he said.

Bruce Merrill, who runs the Cronkite-Eight poll, agreed that Brewer’s problem may not be that the public doesn’t like her policies, but that people don’t really know much about her to begin with. While Napolitano was quite active in the public eye, championing popular issues such as all-day kindergarten and improving Child Protective Services, Brewer has been low-key and has worked behind-the-scenes, Merrill said.

“I doubt that the average person out there knows very much about what the governor does or doesn’t do on a day-to-day basis,” Merrill said. “What we’ve been finding is that people didn’t really know very much about her.”

An Arizona Capitol Times survey of passers-by in a shopping center parking lot — admittedly less scientific than the Rocky Mountain, Cronkite-Eight and Rasmussen polls — lends some credence to the notion that Brewer is an unknown quantity with many voters. When asked whether they approved of the governor’s job performance, several people seemed unaware that Napolitano was no longer governor, while others said they didn’t know anything about Brewer.

Among those who were aware that Brewer took over when Napolitano became U.S. Homeland Security secretary, the predominant opinion was that it is too early to make much of a judgment on the governor’s job performance. Most described her as “OK,” or said they didn’t know enough about her.

Phoenix resident Claudia Hopson said she supports Brewer’s call for a temporary tax increase if it is necessary to pay for basic services. But she said she was turned off by the governor’s frequent criticism of Napolitano.

“I think she’s OK,” Hopson said of Brewer.

“I believe in giving everyone a chance,” she added. “I can’t say she’s done anything to make me hate her or make me dislike her.”

Mike Gutmacher, a self-described “apathetic” voter who said he hasn’t followed state government very closely, said he doesn’t know much about Brewer and hadn’t formed much of an opinion about her job performance.

“I guess she’s doing an OK job, considering the mess she was handed,” the Phoenix resident said.

Andrew Ide, also of Phoenix, echoed that sentiment, saying “as far as I know, she’s OK.”

Ide said he hasn’t followed state government lately either, and all he really knows is that Arizona is facing a budget deficit.

The deficit, and the underlying recession, may be a major contributing factor in Brewer’s poor showing in the Rocky Mountain Poll. Merrill of the Cronkite-Eight poll said results often reflect people’s tendency to blame whoever is in office during economic downturns, just as they often credit officeholders when the economy is good.

Considering the miserable state of Arizona’s economy and Brewer’s tendency to avoid the limelight, Merrill said her numbers “are actually pretty doggone good.” The Legislature had just 15 percent of respondents approving of lawmakers’ job performances, 35 percent disapproving and 37 percent giving them a “fair” rating.

He noted that Napolitano’s approval ratings, which remained fairly high during most of her six years in office, dropped in late 2008 when the economic downturn worsened.

“We live in a society … where the media creates reality. About the only thing anybody’s written about her (Brewer) relates to the economy and the tax increase and the budget, and those are not exactly glamorous kinds of things,” Merrill said. “Considering … the difficultly of the economy, maybe she’s not doing that badly.”

The Cronkite-Eight poll asked voters to approve or disapprove of Brewer’s job performance or give no opinion, and Rasmussen respondents were questioned along similar lines. Respondents to the Rocky Mountain Poll also had the option of rating Brewer as “fair,” which the Behavior Research Center said has historically been a mix of positive and negative opinions that show reservations about the subject’s performance.

Merrill said it is difficult to determine if “fair” is a good or bad rating. Hopson, who viewed “fair” as something in between the two, thought it was a reasonable assessment of Brewer’s first four months.

“Fair would be a neutral answer,” Hopson said.

Regardless of which poll, if any, is accurate, Haynes has comforting words for the governor if she is worried about the 24 percent approval rating his poll gave her. “My own sense is this isn’t necessarily a forebear of what it’s likely to be in a year or two years from now,” he said.

A spokesman for Brewer had no comment on the polls.

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