Two sets of numbers from a statewide opinion poll seemed to contradict each other.
Taken late last year, the Washington Poll asked 600 state voters how they viewed Gov. Chris Gregoire’s performance.
It’s a standard question, the so-called “approval rating.” Of those surveyed, 25 percent said they strongly approved of her performance in office and 38 percent somewhat approved.
On the other side, 14 percent said they somewhat disapproved, and 16 percent said they strongly disapproved.
Taken together, the Democratic governor had a 2-to-1 approval rating, which is very good for an incumbent. By comparison, President Bush had a 2-to-1 disapproval margin and Congress stood only slightly better off.
So Gregoire must be in good shape. Except that the same poll, taken by researchers at the University of Washington School of Social Sciences, then asked voters who they supported in the 2008 election.
Gregoire had the support of 47 percent of those surveyed, while challenger Dino Rossi was named by 42 percent. Given the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent, the poll showed the governor’s race as a statistical dead heat.
How can so many voters say they approve of Gregoire’s performance in office but plan to vote for Rossi?
Matt Barreto is an assistant professor in political science at the University of Washington and is one of the lead researchers for the Washington Poll. He said he wasn’t surprised by the seemingly conflicting results.
“On the one hand, Gregoire has not done anything too controversial, or spearheaded any large failed projects (closest thing that comes to mind is the flap over the Viaduct),” Baretto wrote in reply to an e-mail. “So overall, voters generally approve of her because there is not a huge amount to approve or disapprove of.
“On the other hand, Rossi had very strong supporters the last time around, and there is no reason to believe he would have lost too many of those,” he said. “So when asked specifically about a Gregoire-Rossi match-up, many voters ‘defect,’ so to speak, back to the Rossi camp where they were in 2004, even though in 2006 or 2007 they were somewhat favorable of the gov.
“I would expect that as Rossi firms up his base and his anti-Gregoire campaign unfolds – that is, he takes her on – less and less voters will say ‘favorable’ on the Gregoire question because Rossi will be giving them cues and they will say ‘unfavorable.’”
I put the same question to Gregoire last week during her visit to Jason Lee Middle School in Tacoma.
“I don’t read it as they’re not going to vote for me,” she said. “I read it as, ‘Well, let’s see what the other guy has to say.’
“Most of what I see when I’m out there is people do not know what I’ve done, what we’ve accomplished as a state, together. Once you put that out, I think it’s pretty astonishing.”
She mentions low unemployment rates, gains in education reform and the beginning of reforms to health care. And she displays her heritage whenever Rossi or other Republicans criticize her budget decisions. That is, she gets her Irish up.
Gregoire quickly recites numbers that show how she inherited a huge deficit and now has a surplus, and she notes that Rossi was the Senate budget committee chairman who wrote the budgets that she replaced.
Certainly an improving economy helped. But Gregoire was at the helm when budgets turned from red to black. And she lashes out at GOP charges that she’s spending the state into more debt whenever the economy turns again.
“I think we’ve righted the ship. And then to criticize that? To criticize that. After I’ve cleaned up what was a really difficult, difficult time.”
Did she underestimate Rossi in 2004?
“I don’t know if I underestimated him,” she said. “I’m ready to engage.”
Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657