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Posted at 1:00 PM ET, 03/ 9/2011

Dan Malloy and the politics of unpopularity

By Chris Cillizza

Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy is struggling in the early days of his governorship. AP Photo/Bob Child

Connecticut Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy is learning quickly how to navigate the politics of unpopularity.

While Malloy has been in office for just two months, a new Quinnipiac University poll showed 35 percent of voters approving of the way he is handling his job while 40 percent disapproved.

Malloy's lack of a honeymoon period -- those first few months of popularity usually accorded to newly-minted incumbents -- is tied directly to his budget proposal, which aims to close the state's $3.5 billion deficit through a combination of tax increases and spending cuts.

A majority -- 51 percent -- of Connecticut voters disapprove of how Malloy is handling the budget while just 32 percent approve; among electorally critical independents, 31 percent approve while 52 percent disapprove.

There is more bad news for Malloy sprinkled throughout the Q poll. Two thirds of the state's voters think the budget proposal increases taxes too much and 68 percent say it increases taxes on the middle class too much. Perhaps the most troubling data point in the poll for Malloy is the 56 percent who say the budget plan is "unfair to people like you".

The public's negative reaction to Malloy's budget stands in stark contrast to the praise he has received from the state's editorial boards for the forthrightness with which he has tried to tackle the budget problems afflicting the state.

Take the New London Day, which wrote: "While there is plenty of room to argue over details, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's frank approach to addressing the state budget crisis is welcomed. "

Or the Connecticut Post:

"Whether he wins people over remains to be seen, but you have to credit Gov. Dannel Malloy for tucking his controversial budget proposals under his arm and walking with them into the public square."

Malloy is -- smartly -- going out to sell his plan to the state's voters. He is in the midst of a 17-stop statewide tour during which he is conducting town-hall forums to allow the state's residents to voice their opinions on the plan.

That tour is actually quite popular, according to the Q poll. Nearly nine in ten voters think the town halls are a good idea although only 52 percent said they had heard either "a lot" or "some" about them.

But, viewed broadly, the Q poll makes clear the tremendous challenge that Malloy faces in winning over the public on his budget plan. While nearly eight in ten voters say the state's budget problems are "very serious", there is considerable trepidation about how to appropriately address the issue.

Malloy's calculation is clear: accept some short-term political pain for long term political gain.

He has to hope he will win kudos in the near term for being straightforward with state voters -- in what can only now be called the Chris Christie model -- even though what he is saying is not exactly what they want to hear.

Down the line, Malloy is gambling that if he can get his plan passed and the state's economy is perceived to be turning around, he will get the lion's share of credit for it.

And, there is reason for hope in Malloy's camp in the Q poll about his long term political prospects. Fifty-five percent of state voters say they are optimistic about the "next four years" with Malloy as governor while just 39 percent are pessimistic.

While people like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) or Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) draw more attention nationally for their ongoing budget battles, it may well be Malloy who represents the best litmus test of whether a tough medicine approach can win over voters.

Unlike Wisconsin or Ohio, Connecticut is a Democratic-tilting state and Malloy enjoys considerable margins in both the state House and state Senate. As a result, the budget battle in Connecticut is far less likely to devolve into a purely partisan squabble.

How Malloy succeeds (or fails) will provide a telling example for governors across the nation about how to navigate the politics of unpopularity amid tough choices on the budget.

By Chris Cillizza  | March 9, 2011; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Democratic Party  
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