South Carolinians have soured on Nikki Haley, turning the relatively new governor from a national Tea Party favorite into a chief executive struggling to maintain support among members of her own party, the latest Winthrop University poll shows.
Only 34.6 percent of those surveyed - 1,073 registered S.C. Democrats, Republicans and independents - said they approved of Haley's job performance, according to the poll. Far more - 43 percent - said they disapprove of the way the Republican is handling her job as governor. The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 2.9 percent.
Haley's approval rating is lower than that of President Barack Obama, a Democrat, according to the poll. Obama has a 44.8 percent approval rating in strongly Republican South Carolina, according to the Winthrop poll.
"I'm not shocked at all," said Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party. "It's reflective of her disastrous first year as governor. I'm surprised 1 in 3 South Carolinians believe she's doing a good job. South Carolinians are waking up to the horrible mistake they made last year."
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The Winthrop poll shows Haley rapidly is losing support among her fellow Republicans.
A slim majority of Republicans - 52.5 percent - approve of the way Haley is handling her job, but almost 22 percent of Republicans said they disapprove of her performance.
That compares with a 69.3 percent approval rating for Haley among Republicans and GOP-leaning voters only three months ago, according to a September Winthrop poll.
Haley's spokesman Friday sought to brush off the bad poll numbers.
"Governor Haley is focused on adding to the 19,000 new jobs announced this year, fighting and winning for great South Carolina employers like Boeing, and keeping state spending down to responsible levels - poll numbers don't enter into any of that," spokesman Rob Godfrey said.
However, poor poll numbers can diminish a governor's ability to influence state legislators, just as high numbers can increase a governor's political clout.
Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop and the director of its poll, said Haley's biggest problems are tied to South Carolina's weak economy. South Carolina's jobless rate is one of the highest in the country.
"She is squarely taking the blame for the bad economy, but she has been suffering from a thousand cuts," Huffmon said. "Those things sort of eat away at her base by attrition."
While Haley's numbers are weak, they might not be as weak as they appear, Huffmon added.
Just over 20 percent of those polled said they had no opinion of Haley's performance. "Of those who have an opinion, her approval rating is 44.6 percent," Huffmon said.
Harpootlian said Haley's problems in South Carolina run far deeper than a bad economy. South Carolinians have come to see Haley as dishonest and secretive, he said. "Why do you not use state e-mail and a state phone to conduct state business?" Harpootlian asked. "You do that because you don't want people to know what you're doing."
'Can she keep her base'?
Haley campaigned on transparency, conducting state business in a way that is open to the public. But she has interpreted the state's open records law in a way that allows for the deletion of public records. Public record requests submitted to her office reveal scant few e-mails from Haley, and a recent request from The State newspaper found that Haley rarely used her state-issued cellphone.
The governor's office said Haley uses other methods of communication, including face-to-face meetings and her state office telephone.
Beyond the questions about how Haley conducts state business, other incidents have generated negative headlines for her.
Haley, the first female governor in state history, called a female reporter a "little girl" after the reporter wrote a story on the cost of an economic-development trip Haley and other state officials took to Paris. The trip cost state taxpayers more than $127,000.
Haley said she regretted calling the reporter a "little girl," but she did not apologize.
"My 'little girl' comment was inappropriate, and I regret that," Haley said. "Everyone can have a bad day. I'll forgive her bad story, if she'll forgive my poor choice of words."
Haley, who has called for drug testing of those seeking unemployment benefits, also was unable to back up a claim she made that half of those who sought work at the U.S. Energy Department's Savannah River Site failed drug tests and the remaining half failed reading and writing tests.
Many state legislators, including Republicans, were sharply critical of Haley's opposition to tax breaks online retailer Amazon was promised in exchange for bringing 1,200 jobs to Lexington County.
House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, also hammered away at the governor on the House floor for backing away from a deal he thought he had reached with her on funding for ETV.
The governor's report cards for state legislators also struck many as petty and self-serving; those who disagreed with the governor received poor grades and those who supported her policies fared better.
Most recently, questions have arisen about Haley's role in the decision by an agency that she controls to allow a Georgia port to expand, after she received $15,000 in campaign donations at an Atlanta fundraiser. Haley says there was no connection.
"There's been a lot of bad press," Huffmon said. "There are a lot of tea party folks who thought she would come in and tear through government. The blogs have been tearing her up. That might be a concern about whether she can keep her base."
Huffmon said Haley's political fate, like that of Obama's, is tied to the economy.
"If you're a Democratic elite, you're hoping for a good economy so Obama can be re-elected," Huffmon said. "But that same good economy helps Nikki Haley."
Haley's office Friday took particular exception to the poll numbers showing that Obama has a higher job-approval rating in South Carolina than the Republican governor, calling that result not credible.
A national Gallup Poll released last week showed Obama's approval rating was at 42 percent, lower than his 44.8 percent approval rating in South Carolina, according to the Winthrop poll.
Obama won about 45 percent of the S.C. vote during the 2008 presidential election.
With Haley's poll numbers down, Harpootlian predicted Republicans will begin to squabble among themselves and keep their distance from the governor.
"They don't want to be painted with her brush," he said. What's done well for Republicans in South Carolina is the brand. They've been Coca-Cola. We've been Dr Pepper. But the shine is off the brand. She makes this easy for us."
More about the poll
The Winthrop Poll of 1,073 registered voters, taken between Nov. 27 and Dec. 4, asked S.C. voters: "Do you approve or disapprove of the way Nikki Haley is handling her job as governor of South Carolina?" Here's what those polled said:
Approve - 34.6 percent
Disapprove - 43 percent
Not sure - 20.2 percent
Refused to answer - 2.2 percent
SOURCE: Winthrop Poll; margin of error of 2.9 percent.
Gov. Haley or General Assembly
Individual chief executives - governors and presidents - rarely are less popular than an impersonal body like a state Legislature or the U.S. Congress.
But Gov. Nikki Haley's approval rating among 1,073 registered voters is only slightly higher than that of the S.C. General Assembly, the Winthrop poll shows. Haley's approval rating of 34.6 percent was about the same as the 34.3 percent approval given the General Assembly.
Haley's disapproval rating in the poll was 43 percent, higher than the 41.6 percent who said they disapprove of the way the General Assembly is handling its job.
Both the approval and disapproval ratings were within the poll's 2.9 percent margin of error.
Asked if the relationship between Haley and the Legislature was very good, somewhat good, neither bad nor good, somewhat bad or very bad, about half of those surveyed said neither bad nor good.
Only 15.5 percent said the relations between the Republican governor and GOP-controlled Legislature were very or somewhat good. Almost 25 percent said it was somewhat or very bad.
Among those who said the relationship is sour, Haley gets the blame.
About 52 percent of those saying the relationship was somewhat or very bad said Haley and the Legislature are equally to blame. But 36 percent said the blame lies with Haley. Just more than 8 percent said the General Assembly is responsible for the bad relationship.