As election year nears, Gov. J.B. Pritzker faces a voter enthusiasm gap

The governor had better find a way to convince the large number of people with no stated opinion of him to move his direction.

SHARE As election year nears, Gov. J.B. Pritzker faces a voter enthusiasm gap

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks about a sweeping criminal justice reform bill before signing it into law during a ceremony at Chicago State University on the South Side on Feb. 22, 2021.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

For the first year or so of his administration leading up to the beginning of the pandemic, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s polling wasn’t exactly horrible, but it was still pretty darned underwhelming.

But after some spectacular crisis-induced polling spikes last year, the governor has seemingly come back down to Earth.

The first poll taken by Morning Consult after Pritzker was sworn into office in January of 2019 found his job approval rate at 40%, with his disapproval at 29% and 31% not saying either way. By the end of 2019, Morning Consult had his approve/disapprove at 43% to 41%, with 16% not weighing in. An early February 2020 poll by Fako Research & Strategies found that 39% of Illinois voters rated him positively, while 36% rated him negatively and 19% were neutral.

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But then came COVID-19 and Pritzker’s numbers really shot up, mainly because of his handling of the pandemic. Three polls in April and May of last year showed his pandemic job approval rating at 70% or higher, and one had his overall job approval at 61 to 35%.

“He was bullet-proof,” a top Republican consultant recalled of those heady days.

What goes up often comes down, however, and by October a quite prescient Change Research/Capitol Fax poll had Pritzker’s fave/unfaves at 48 to 45%, possibly due at least in part to the unpopularity of his graduated income tax proposal.

A poll released last week, conducted from Feb. 17 to 21 by Chip Englander’s firm 1892 Polling, had Pritzker back to even, with 41% favorable and 41% unfavorable. The margin of error was +/-3.5 percent. Englander was a key figure in Bruce Rauner’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign, but I’ve always found his polling to be reliable.

Pritzker’s apparent problem now is the same problem he had in the early days: Lots of folks say they have no opinion either way about him — 18% in this instance.

A look at the cross tabs shows this is especially problematic with his Democratic Party’s base. Black voters have a favorable opinion of Pritzker (58-14), but 29% said they had no opinion of the governor. Twenty-three percent of women and Latinos, 21% of Democrats, 19% of Chicagoans and 17% of liberals all had no opinion of the governor.

This more than just suggests that Pritzker has a serious enthusiasm issue.

There were some other warning signs in the poll. A quarter of Chicagoans said they had an unfavorable opinion of Pritzker, which is not far off the 28% of city voters who opposed the governor’s Fair Tax last November. Rauner beat Pat Quinn to be elected governor in 2014 with 21% of the city’s vote; and Rauner lost to Pritzker four years later with just 15% of the city’s tally.

“We are where we need to be in the city and Downstate,” that aforementioned GOP consultant claimed yesterday. The key, he said, is the suburbs.

The “suburbs” classification in Englander cross tabs includes suburban Cook, DuPage and Lake counties. He’s separated those counties out for years because, an associate explained, that’s where the real battleground is.

Pritzker took those three counties with 57% in 2018. This recent poll has the governor’s favorables in those counties at 47%, his unfavorables at 35% and “No opinion” at 18%.

This isn’t pandemic epidemiology here. Pritzker has to find a way to convince the large number of people with no stated opinion of him to move his direction. He has plenty of time to do it, but it’s more difficult to accomplish as the months click by for an incumbent.

As the virus hopefully fades away, it’ll also be easier to use pandemic-related issues against Pritzker, like the ongoing catastrophe at the Illinois Department of Employment Security, massive small business closures, the LaSalle Veterans’ Home deaths, etc. The criminal justice reform law is also going to be a very tricky issue to handle, if other states are any guide. And he needs to put some wins on the board to help people forget about his disastrous 2020 graduated income tax referendum.

In other words, Pritzker will have his own record to contend with instead of running against a horribly unpopular Republican incumbent in an off-year election during the term of a fabulously unpopular Republican president.

The overall trend will not be so friendly next time, unless Pritzker gets lucky with a fatally flawed Republican opponent, or creates his own luck by quietly helping a far-right candidate across the finish line.

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