How Every Senator And Governor Ranks According To ‘Popularity Above Replacement’

How Every Senator And Governor Ranks According To ‘Popularity Above Replacement’

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

After about a three-year hiatus, FiveThirtyEight’s Popularity Above Replacement Senator and Popularity Above Replacement Governor ratings are back! Based on Morning Consult’s approval ratings1 for every senator and governor in the country (now updated for the first quarter of 2022), PARS and PARG attempt to measure how much stronger (or weaker) a politician is than a generic (or, to use a term from baseball, replacement-level) candidate from their party would be. 

The idea behind these stats is that a 70 percent approval rating for a Democrat in Massachusetts isn’t the same as a 70 percent approval rating for a Democrat in Florida. Because Massachusetts is so blue, that’s no big whoop in the Bay State — but in reddish Florida, it denotes a talented politician with a lot of cross-party appeal.

Calculating PARS and PARG is simple: It’s just the difference between each state’s FiveThirtyEight partisan lean2 and the senator or governor’s net approval rating (approval rating minus disapproval rating). Doing this for the Senate, we get the following table of senators with the best and worst statewide brands:

The latest ‘Popularity Above Replacement Senator’ scores

Senators’ net approval ratings (approval ratings minus disapproval ratings) for the first three months of 2022 relative to the FiveThirtyEight partisan leans of their states

Nationally, Sen. Joe Manchin is best known as a thorn in liberals’ side because he has opposed President Biden’s agenda on the social safety net, voting rights, abortion and more. But his moderation has endeared him to voters in his home state of West Virginia: He has a +22 net approval rating in the R+36 state, for a chamber-leading PARS of +58. And he’s not the only Democrat with a lot of cross-party appeal; in fact, the 16 senators with the highest PARS scores all caucus with the Democratic Party. This includes Sens. Jon Tester (+33 PARS) and Sherrod Brown (+20 PARS), who have managed to win multiple elections despite hailing from red states.

This also offers a glimmer of hope to Democrats who face the very real prospect of losing control of the Senate in 2022, as this fall’s midterm elections are shaping up well for Republicans. Their four most vulnerable incumbents this fall — Sens. Raphael Warnock, Mark Kelly, Maggie Hassan and Catherine Cortez Masto — all have PARS scores of at least +7, suggesting that they are capable of outperforming the base partisanship of their state. That will be essential in a year when, based solely on partisan lean and generic congressional ballot polling, you’d expect a Republican to win their home states, all else being equal.

On the flip side, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson has one of the worst PARS scores (-18); despite his home state of Wisconsin having an R+4 partisan lean, his net approval rating is -14 percentage points. This unpopularity could drag him down in November, allowing Democrats to flip a Senate seat that, on paper, should remain Republican in this environment.

Then again, a senator’s PARS score isn’t everything. Just ask Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who for years has had the worst PARS score in the country (currently -54). Yet, even though his net approval rating has long been underwater, he easily won reelection in 2020 thanks to Kentucky’s overwhelming Republican lean. (That said, he did win by “only” 20 points, several points worse than the state’s partisan lean, suggesting that his unpopularity did have some effect.)

Senators like Manchin and McConnell are exceptions, though. The majority of senators have PARS scores in the single digits, indicating that their approval rating is largely determined by the partisanship of their states. This is less true for governors, however. Although partisanship has been getting more important in gubernatorial races, it is not as dominant of a force in them as it is in federal elections.3

As a result, more governors than senators have PARGs at the extreme ends of the spectrum, as you can see in the table below. Also, a mix of both parties dominates the top of the list — not just Democrats. 

The latest ‘Popularity Above Replacement Governor’ scores

Governors’ net approval ratings (approval ratings minus disapproval ratings) for the first three months of 2022 relative to the FiveThirtyEight partisan leans of their states

As they have for years, three northeastern, blue-state Republicans lead the way: Govs. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Phil Scott of Vermont and Larry Hogan of Maryland. Each currently enjoys an extraordinary PARG of +75 or higher. A trio of red-state Democrats — Kentucky’s Andy Beshear, Kansas’s Laura Kelly and Louisiana’s John Bel Edwards — all have PARGs between +31 and +51 as well. 

Similar to a senator’s PARS score, a governor’s PARG score can also help us get a better sense of which governors running for reelection in 2022 are best equipped to swim against the partisan tide of their states. Scott and Kelly4 seem to be in the best position, especially Scott: Not only does he have more cross-party appeal than Kelly (+77 PARG), but he is also a Republican running in a good Republican year. Kelly, on the other hand, does have a brand distinct from the national Democratic Party, but it’s an open question whether she can get enough Kansas Republicans who approve of her to take the extra step and vote for her as well. Early polling indicates a tight race. 

Governors running for reelection in swing states also have some very different PARGs that explain why some of them are vulnerable this year, while others probably don’t have anything to worry about. For instance, New Hampshire is an evenly divided state, but Gov. Chris Sununu’s net approval rating is +30, so he is expected to comfortably win reelection. And you might expect Democratic Gov. Jared Polis to be vulnerable in a Republican-leaning midterm in D+6 Colorado, but his net approval rating is 16 points higher than that, giving him a nice cushion in case the national environment puts his state in play.

With a PARG of +13, Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak of Nevada also has a distinct personal brand that could help him weather a tough reelection campaign in purple Nevada. But Democratic Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin may be more at the mercy of the national mood. Evers’s PARG is just +1, suggesting perceptions of him are strongly dependent on partisanship. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan is somewhere in the middle, with a PARG of +6. That suggests she has a bit of crossover appeal, but that her fate is still closely tied to partisanship.

Toward the bottom of the list are five governors running for reelection whose approval ratings don’t look as strong as they seem after taking partisan lean into account. That said, they are all in very safe states, so they shouldn’t be in any danger. The governor’s race in Rhode Island could be a sleeper, though, considering Gov. Dan McKee’s mediocre +2 net approval rating, the fact that he is running for the office for the first time (he became governor only because he was the lieutenant governor when the old governor resigned), the pro-Republican national mood and Rhode Island’s elasticity.

Finally, the two governors with the worst PARGs are Democrats Kate Brown of Oregon (-25) and David Ige of Hawaii (-41). Both have negative net approval ratings despite governing fairly blue states. They might have been in real danger of losing their seats in 2022, but thankfully for Democrats, both are retiring.

Other polling bites

  • A new Monmouth University poll, conducted May 5-9 after a draft Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v. Wade was leaked, found that only 38 percent of Americans approved of the job the Supreme Court was doing, while 52 percent disapproved. This was significantly worse than the court’s ratings in March, when 42 percent approved and 42 percent disapproved. But it is also arguably the continuation of a long-term decline in the court’s popularity; a Monmouth poll from March 2016 gave the court a 49 percent approval and 33 percent disapproval rating.
  • With the prospect that abortion could soon be illegal in many states, some people may face difficult decisions about what to do if they have an unwanted pregnancy. According to a May 5-8 poll from the Generation Lab, which researches trends among young people, 56 percent of 18- to 29-year-old women said that they would still seek out an abortion provider even if it were illegal. An additional 10 percent said they would attempt to end the pregnancy at home. Only 34 percent said they would carry the pregnancy to term.
  • As hate crimes against Asian Americans have increased amid the coronavirus pandemic, 72 percent of English-speaking Asian Americans told the Pew Research Center that they at least sometimes worry about getting threatened or attacked because of their race or ethnicity, including 21 percent who said they worry about it every day or almost every day. More than a third — 36 percent — also said they have changed their daily routines because of that worry.
  • Billionaire Elon Musk’s quest to buy Twitter isn’t yet official, but if he is successful, he said this week he will reinstate former President Donald Trump’s account. But according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll from April 29-May 2, that would be a controversial decision: 45 percent of registered voters thought Trump’s ban from Twitter should be kept permanent, while 41 percent agreed with restoring his account.

Biden approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,5 41.4 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 52.6 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -11.2 points). At this time last week, 42.2 percent approved and 52.5 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -10.3 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 42.2 percent and a disapproval rating of 52.2 percent, for a net approval rating of -10.0 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot,6 Republicans currently lead by 2.6 percentage points (45.5 percent to 42.9 percent). A week ago, Republicans led Democrats by 2.6 points (45.4 percent to 42.8 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Republicans by 2.2 points (44.7 percent to 42.5 percent).

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight. @baseballot

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