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Can an unpopular governor win the presidency?

'If you can’t convince the home state audience you’re a good leader, it’s nearly impossible to do well' nationally, says presidential historian David Brinkley.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie holds a town hall meeting in Franklin, NJ.. on April 15, 2014.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie holds a town hall meeting in Franklin, NJ.. on April 15, 2014.

As Chris Christie barnstorms the country campaigning for Republican candidates, the New Jersey governor has seen his popularity slipping back in the Garden State. And with Christie's 2016 ambitions not exactly top secret, it begs the question: Can you be an unpopular governor at home and still go on to win the nation’s highest office?

A recent Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press survey found that just 46% of New Jersey residents approve of Christie’s job performance, with 39% disapproving. A Quinnipiac poll released last week mirrored those results.  

Christie's numbers have plummeted from less than a year ago, when he enjoyed approval ratings in the 60s and 70s. And to make matters worse, New Jerseyans prefer Hillary Clinton—the early Democratic frontrunner among 2016 presidential candidates—over their own governor by a 50-40% margin, according to Quinnipiac.

Christie isn’t the only governor with a possible eye on the Oval Office who is far from beloved in his home state. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is in a heated re-election battle, has a 47% approval rating, according to a Marquette University Law School poll from earlier this month. And Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, one of the most popular governors in the country just four years ago, is faring even worse. According to a survey released this week by Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling, Jindal has a 34% approval rating, with 55% disapproving. 

So, what happens if these governors don't bounce back by 2016? According to presidential historian and Rice University professor Douglas Brinkley, it won't be good. 

“It does not bode well for Christie, Jindal, Walker and other governors who are disliked by about half of the voters in the state," said Brinkley. "If you can’t convince the home state audience you’re a good leader, it’s nearly impossible to do well on a national level.” 

Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University, agreed. “The first thing many Americans want to know is how the economy is doing in their state and do the people there like him,” Zelizer said. He added that if the unpopular governors’ numbers continue to slide at home, “it will instantly raise questions, especially among donors who are always trying to figure out where to invest money.”

In modern history, four governors—two Democrats and two Republicans – have gone on to become president: Jimmy Carter of Georgia, Ronald Reagan of California, Bill Clinton of Arkansas and George W. Bush of Texas.

For the most part, the four were more popular than not during their governorships. George W. Bush’s approval rating with Texans hovered around the 70s two years before he began running for president. Clinton won five terms as Arkansas governor and in 1991, as he was preparing for a presidential run, was ranked by his fellow governors as the nation’s most effective state leader. Reagan wasn't elected president until five years after he left the governor's mansion in 1975. But a poll taken during his final year in Sacramento gave him a 53% approval rating, compared to 42% disapproval.

Carter, elected president two years after his governorship, is a more complicated story. There's no readily available polling data from Carter's tenure as governor, but it's fair to say he wasn't always popular back home. Randall Balmer, a Dartmouth College professor and author of “Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter," said that during Carter's governorship, which lasted from 1971 to 1975, "he came across resistance from a lot of people that had supported him" during his campaign.

But that was in part because of issues that were specific to the south. Carter ran a race-baiting campaign for governor, Balmer said, then quickly pivoted by declaring in his inaugural speech that “the time of racial segregation is over"—a move that alienated many white Georgia conservatives, but played much better with the nation at large.    

David Greenberg, a Rutgers University professor who specializes in modern American political history, said it can be beneficial to be an ex-governor by the time you run for president, as Carter was, especially if your tenure was controversial. “That is often the best vantage point to run because you’re not dragged down by the ongoing battles in your state,” he said.

In 2016, that might be good news for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who left office in 2007 with an approval rating above 60%.

But just because you’re faring poorly in your home state, you're not necessarily doomed nationally. “It used to be the state’s political machinery was helpful in propelling you into the nomination or the presidency," Greenberg said. "That’s less true than it used to be.” He added that the rise of cable, internet and talk radio has made it easier to build support nationally instead of merely at the state level.

As for the current governors: What's behind their sagging approval ratings?

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said Christie seemed to have rebounded from the “Bridgegate” scandal, in which his staffers and allies closed lanes on the George Washington Bridge last September, perhaps for political retribution. But Murray said Christie's frequent out-of-state trips to stump on behalf of 2014 candidates as chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association may be a factor in the declining numbers. In fact, the Monmouth survey found 56% of New Jerseyans believe the governor is more concerned with his own political future than he is with governing the state.

“In the past, buzz about Christie’s presidential potential was a source of pride for most New Jerseyans," said Murray. "These findings suggest that some of his constituents are starting to resent his time out of state."

Christie brushed off that criticism, telling reporters in Connecticut on Monday that most people “have been very encouraging to me about doing the job that I’ve been doing regarding other governors and other candidates across the country.” Christie will travel to Florida, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and New Hampshire this week.

Walker has grappled with an inquiry into his administration regarding alleged illegal fundraising. He also faced criticism over his attempt to roll back union rights, surviving a recall election in 2012. Jindal, meanwhile, has pushed unpopular budget cuts, including to education, as well as a tax plan skewed to the rich.

But not all governors who could run in 2016 are struggling.

Texas's Rick Perry has a 57% approval rating among registered voters, according to a new Texas Lyceum poll. Ohio's John Kasich has also maintained an approval rating in the mid to high 50s, and is expected to cruise to re-election next month. Indiana's Mike Pence has enjoyed high approval ratings since being elected last year.

If candidates play it right, having experience as a governor and running for president can be a huge boost. Unlike the Senate, you’re detached from Washington but have experience managing a team, handling a budget, and helping steer policy.

“It gives you the opportunity to say ‘I’m not one of those Washington guys,'" said Brinkley. "People can see what kind of team you build. When you’re a senator, you can’t see that."

But just because you’re faring poorly in your home state at the end of your gubernatorial term doesn’t mean you can’t go on to at least seal your party’s nomination. By the end of his time as governor in 2007, Mitt Romney’s approval rating in Massachusetts was a dismal 34%, according to a Boston Globe poll.