Voters in Big States Prefer Skinflint Candidates

"Government in New York is too big, ineffective and expensive," the candidate's website proclaims. "We must get our State's fiscal house in order by immediately imposing a cap on state spending and freezing salaries of state public employees as part of a one-year emergency financial plan, committing to no increase in personal or corporate income taxes of sales taxes and imposing a local property tax cap."

A Tea Party candidate? Some right-wing Republican? No, it's Andrew Cuomo, son of three-term Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo. Interestingly, he's the only Democrat with a significant polling lead in the governor races in our eight largest states, which together have 48 percent of the nation's population.

It's a poorly kept secret that government is growing not only at the federal, but also at the state and local levels. Especially in some of the biggest states, public employee unions have successfully pressed for higher pay and lavish pensions (one Illinois school superintendent's pension is valued at $26 million) to the point that public employees' salaries and benefits are higher than those of the private sector taxpayers who pay for them.

So while 8 million private sector jobs have disappeared, the number of public sector job losses is near zero.

In times of economic distress voters don't want to keep feeding the government beast, but believe it needs to cinch the belt a little tighter, as most Americans have been doing.

Barack Obama's solution is to send borrowed federal dollars--one-third of the $862 billion stimulus package last year and now a proposal for another $23 billion for teachers--to states and localities to prop up the pay of unionized public employees. One reason: unions gave Obama and the Democrats $400 million in the 2008 cycle.

State governors can't resort to deficit spending without risky gimmicks, and what's more, as Andrew Cuomo's platform suggests, voters don't want them to.

As a result, Republicans are leading or running even in governor races in seven of the eight largest states. In California, Democrat Jerry Brown, at 72 seeking the office he first won at 36, is below 50 percent against eBay billionaire Meg Whitman. In Texas, Tea Party favorite Rick Perry leads Democrat Bill White, who had a moderate record as mayor of Houston.

In Florida, all polls have shown Republicans leading the one Democrat in statewide office.

In Pennsylvania, Republican Tom Corbett seems likely to regain the governorship for his party in a state where party control has shifted every eight years since 1950.

In Illinois, would-be tax-raiser Pat Quinn, elevated to the governorship when Rod Blagojevich resigned, trails a little-known Downstate Republican legislator.

In Ohio, Democrat Ted Strickland, popular for his first two-and-a-half years is only even with John Kasich, former chairman of the U.S. House Budget Committee.

Perhaps most surprisingly, in the nation's No. 1 unemployment state, Michigan, voters are leaning toward replacing tax-raising Democrat Jennifer Granholm with one of the four Republicans running in the August primary over either of the two Democrats.

That's pretty good proof that in times of economic distress voters don't want to keep feeding the government beast, but believe it needs to cinch the belt a little tighter, as most Americans have been doing.

It's not only in America's big states that we're seeing this phenomenon. As former Economist editor Bill Emmott notes in London's Times, parties of the Left have been getting shellacked all over Europe, most recently in Britain.

You might wonder whether spending cuts will prove as unpopular as big spending programs. That's unclear, but there's an interesting test case in the nation's 16th largest state, Indiana.

In 2008, even while Indiana voters went 50 percent to 49 percent for Obama, they reelected spending-cutting Republican Governor Mitch Daniels by a 58 percent to 40 percent margin. Daniels carried young voters 51 percent to 42 percent and college-educated voters 62 percent to 34 percent. He ran ahead of Ronald Reagan's 1984 showing in Indiana's most affluent county while winning 25 percent from blacks and 37 percent from Latinos. Among all these groups he ran ahead of John McCain by double digits.

Daniels's skinflint instincts were unpopular with Republican as well as Democratic members of Congress when he headed the Office of Management and Budget in George W. Bush's first term. But they seem to have struck a chord with Hoosiers of all stripes.

His performance is evidence that the polls showing voters in our biggest states favoring smaller government may not just be a passing fancy. Congress may vote more money for the public employee unions. But in New York, Andrew Cuomo seems to have gotten the message.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/james steidl

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  • Michael Barone, a political analyst and journalist, studies politics, American government, and campaigns and elections. The principal coauthor of the annual Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), he has written many books on American politics and history. Barone is also a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.

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