It's a little early for the Rick Scott team to break out the expensive champagne. But maybe a good Merlot is in order.
If it isn't celebration time at the mansion, it should be. A little one, anyway. The governor just might have turned a corner.
Until last month, Scott's numbers were dropping like a prom dress – 29 percent approval in a May Qinnipiac Poll, 27 percent in a July Sunshine State News Poll. Now look. Here he is in last week's Q-Poll, his approval up to 35 percent.
Of course, the mainstreamers got in their usual dig. Their headlines: "Gov. Rick Scott's approval climbs, but still among worst in the country" or "For Rick Scott, bad polling numbers are good news" or "Scott’s approval ratings go 'from terrible to bad.'" All correct on the face of it. Popular he's not. Governors with a 35 percent approval rating don't get re-elected.
But, here's something they can't deny: Rick Scott was swimming upstream against a powerful antipolitician current when he posted that Q-Poll result. Voters right now are sour on anybody at any level, elected or appointed, that they perceive are ruining their lives and their country.
In the national Gallup Poll, even Barack Obama went from a 53 percent approval rate in May to a 42 percent approval in the first week of August. That means at the same time period the president loses 11 points in the nation, Scott gains 6 in Florida. As for Florida voters surveyed after the debt-ceiling deal, Obama's Q-Poll numbers are similar to his national ones. They say 50-42 that Obama does not deserve to be re-elected, compared to a 47-46 split before the deal and 50-44 support for his re-election when the May 26 poll was taken.
And look at Congress. Americans' opinion of that once-august body has sunk to a historic low, according to a CNN poll released last week. Only 14 percent of the poll's respondents said they approve of the way Congress is handling its job. Any known-quantity politician right now is taking it on the chin.
So, how come Rick Scott is bucking a negative trend he virtually set all by himself three months ago? Observers around Tallahassee account for his 6 points this way:
- The governor makes a conscious effort to bypass the filter in the Florida Press Center. Since he's taken office, he has participated in more than 100 in-state radio interviews. He's talking to people directly in towns like Boca Raton, Tarpon Springs, Ocala, Titusville, Lake City, Destin -- and often they're the kind of programs that welcome listener questions. These radio "appearances" are bringing Scott closer to Floridians and their problems. They're beginning to have an effect. And the governor is getting credit for his forthright approach, for reaching out with real candor.
- Scott's biggest numbers came from his Republican base. There, he climbed from a 51-to-61 percent approval rating -- mostly, say GOP observers, because he's finally managed to cajole the diehard Bill McCollum faithful who had a tough time accepting him as the party's No. 1.
- He promised to champion an immigration bill, see it through to passage, during the 2012 legislative session. It's likely to be a sticky issue again with his plurality of friends in the business community. But for now, that issue alone -- that promise -- is helping him recapture the tea party folks who did the most to put him in office.
- Scott is no longer test-driving the office. He's wearing his safety helmet, he's strapped in, he's gripping the wheel with both hands. Those close to him say he's getting better advice these days. They give some of the credit to Steve MacNamara, his new chief of staff. They claim that for the last month at least, he's felt more comfortable in his skin, as if he enjoys what he's doing, as if he fears no one, not even the voracious press corps -- which, for the first time last week, he plied with doughnuts in his office. It's infectious, they say -- this new relaxed Rick -- and voters are beginning to sense it.
- The governor's once-a-month "Let's Get to Work Days," his resurrection of Bob Graham-style workdays, is a popular decision. It was announced and discussed in the right time period to have a possible effect on the Q-Poll's survey results. Last week Scott spent Wednesday morning in a Tampa bakery while protesters gathered outside. Most savvy politicos see these days as one of Scott's smartest moves. As one of them told me, "It's what he's going to learn from middle class Floridians, not so much what they can learn from him. If anything is going to help him get beyond his talking points in interviews, being close to real people with real problems will."
My favorite Q-Poll headline last week read, "A bad poll for any governor but Rick Scott." The meaning is clear. This governor will load a lot of dirt on the shovel before he digs himself out of the hole he's in.
And, by the way, don't believe him when he says, "I didn't run to win a popularity contest, I ran to get this state back to work." Scott ran for both reasons: He really does need to fare well in that popularity contest and he knows it. If he doesn't, he won't get a second term, won't get to finish what he started.
Can he do it? Can he establish a viable incumbency at the end of the next three years? GOP observers say yes, he can. But it's likely to be a one-year-at-a-time thing. If he delivers on his jobs promise, if he files down some of his sharp-edged reforms, softens the "hurts" in these tough times, if he can crash the 2012 Legislature's party early on -- lay out his priorities in a plan of his own and then follow it through ... Gov. Rick Scott can distinguish himself in the office beyond his wildest dreams.
This is an opinion column by Nancy Smith. Reach Nancy at email@example.com, or at (850) 727-0859.