Poll: Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s Approval Rating Plunges After ‘Religious Freedom’ Law

The Republican has spent the week telling reporters the religious-freedom debate won’t cause lasting damage, but the short-term pain appears evident.

Pence: Ready to rumble.
National Journal
Karyn Bruggeman
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Karyn Bruggeman
April 16, 2015, 10:28 a.m.

In­di­ana Gov. Mike Pence spent the week telling re­port­ers, “I think the dif­fi­cult time that In­di­ana just passed through two weeks ago is be­hind us.”

But a new poll re­leased Thursday sug­gests the gov­ernor could have a tough time re­cov­er­ing from the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing In­di­ana’s “re­li­gious free­dom” law.

The poll, from Howey Polit­ics and con­duc­ted by a Re­pub­lic­an-af­fil­i­ated re­search firm, said that 46 per­cent of voters dis­ap­prove of Pence while 45 per­cent ap­prove of him.

That ap­prov­al rat­ing is double di­gits be­low Pence’s per­form­ance in oth­er re­cent polls in the state. A Janu­ary sur­vey from Pub­lic Opin­ion Strategies con­duc­ted for Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity put Pence’s ap­prov­al at 66 per­cent, and a poll from Feb­ru­ary for the In­di­ana As­so­ci­ation of Re­altors had Pence at 62 per­cent.

Howey Polit­ics ed­it­or Bri­an Howey de­scribed the hit to Pence’s pub­lic pro­file as “sig­ni­fic­ant, if not his­tor­ic,” adding: “In the 20 years that HPI has been pub­lish­ing … an In­di­ana gov­ernor has nev­er ex­per­i­enced this kind of sur­vey de­cline in this short time frame.”

The drop fol­lows Pence’s con­tro­ver­sial sign­ing of a law that sparked a na­tion­wide de­bate. The meas­ure’s sup­port­ers say the law was aimed at pro­tect­ing in­di­vidu­als and busi­nesses from par­ti­cip­at­ing in activ­it­ies that go against their re­li­gious be­liefs, but the law was widely in­ter­preted as sanc­tion­ing dis­crim­in­a­tion against gay, les­bi­an, and trans­gender in­di­vidu­als. The law was cri­ti­cized by left-lean­ing groups, as well as by prom­in­ent busi­ness or­gan­iz­a­tions in­side the state and out—in­clud­ing some firms that prom­ised to pull their busi­ness from In­di­ana.

In the Howey Polit­ics poll, 50 per­cent said they think the con­tro­versy over the re­li­gious-free­dom is­sue will have a neg­at­ive im­pact on In­di­ana’s eco­nomy, even when it isn’t “front page news” any­more. Fifty-nine per­cent of voters said they thought the bill was un­ne­ces­sary. A ma­jor­ity of In­di­ana voters (54 per­cent) would sup­port adding leg­al pro­tec­tions against dis­crim­in­a­tion based on gender and sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion.

In­di­ana Demo­crats are con­fid­ent that Pence’s hand­ling of the re­li­gious-free­dom meas­ure caused him long-term dam­age, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to the per­cep­tion that Pence caused an “eco­nom­ic pan­ic,” as In­di­ana Demo­crat­ic Party chair John Zody phrased it.

Pence’s new­found vul­ner­ab­il­ity has in­spired Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans who wer­en’t pre­vi­ously con­sid­er­ing run­ning for gov­ernor in 2016, when Pence will face reelec­tion, to give the race fresh con­sid­er­a­tion. One of those Re­pub­lic­ans is Angie’s List founder Bill Oes­terle, who an­nounced his plans to step down from his role as CEO on Wed­nes­day and said he wasn’t rul­ing out a primary chal­lenge against Pence.

In the latest sur­vey, Pence did main­tain a lead in match­ups against three po­ten­tial Demo­crat­ic chal­lengers. Pence leads In­di­ana Su­per­in­tend­ent of Pub­lic In­struc­tion Gl­enda Ritz, 42 to 39 per­cent, and leads 2012 Demo­crat­ic gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate John Gregg, 43 to 37 per­cent. Pence also leads former Rep. Bar­on Hill, 43 per­cent to 36 per­cent.

The Howey Polit­ics poll was con­duc­ted by the Re­pub­lic­an-af­fil­i­ated Bell­weth­er Re­search from April 12 to 14, and sur­veyed 607 re­gistered voters with a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or minus 4.0 per­cent.

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