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Poll shows low ratings of R.I. officials

‘Job One: Leadership’ poll suggests leadership problems, but some doubt methodological validity

Rhode Island voters have low confidence in the effectiveness of their elected state leaders, according to the results of a poll conducted Feb. 9-12. Only 2 percent of voters rated state leaders’ effectiveness as “excellent,” while the majority — 82 percent — rated it “fair” or “poor.”

The poll was run by Fleming and Associates, a public polling firm, as part of a new election-year initiative called “Job One: Leadership.” The initiative aims to bring attention to current problems in public leadership as Rhode Island elections draw near and is headed by the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University, the Providence Journal and Rhode Island PBS, according to an article in the Journal.

The firm surveyed a total of 438 registered state voters via telephone.

Voters were asked to rate the effectiveness of state elected officials, as well as their leaders’ performance in specific areas, including problem solving, communications, integrity, fiscal management, accessibility, leadership and conflict management.

Voters expressed dissatisfaction with their state leaders in these categories, with the majority of respondents labeling their performance as “fair” or “poor” in all of them.

“This poll is a direct indictment of public leadership on the economy,” said Ian Donnis, a political reporter for Rhode Island Public Radio. “Rhode Island is consistently among the states with the highest unemployment,” and the poll results reflect the public’s frustration on this issue, he added.

Rhode Island’s economic problems reflect a lack of clear strategy and vision over time, Donnis said.

But others said they were skeptical about the poll’s accuracy in representing public sentiment.

“I am actually quite wary of over-interpreting this poll,” wrote Wendy Schiller, associate professor of political science and public policy, in an email to The Herald. The poll’s small sample size and the number of other surveys that have suggested consistently high approval ratings for key state and local leaders over time call this poll’s validity into question, she added.

This poll “tells you everything and nothing,” said Scott MacKay, a political reporter for RIPR, adding that the poll was poorly designed and the questions were nonspecific.

“The broader takeaway from this poll is that (Rhode Island voters) are very unhappy with the direction of their state, especially on issues such as job development and job security,” Schiller wrote. “They are generally blaming state legislature and state bureaucratic leaders for appearing unresponsive to their concerns.”

This poll might be condemning the lack of transparency and communication between the state government and Rhode Islanders, MacKay said. “Too many things are done in secrecy, and voters don’t like to be surprised,” he added.

The low poll ratings do not apply to every official, Donnis said. Many politicians, such as Mayor Angel Taveras, have garnered fairly high levels of public support that have remained consistent over time, he said.

“When state residents are unhappy about their economic situation, that will affect how they view government generally, but (will) not always be reflected in their individual assessments of their elected officials,” Schiller wrote.

“To paint everyone in the same picture with a broad brush is neither valid nor fair,” MacKay said.

According to the Journal, Rhode Island Republicans are more critical of state leadership than Democrats are, with 98 percent of Republican respondents rating the effectiveness of their elected officials as “fair” or “poor,” compared to 70 percent of Democrats.

“Republicans are a small minority in Rhode Island, and Democrats have overwhelming control of the General Assembly,” Donnis said. “Republicans are on the outside looking in, so it’s reasonable to expect them to have a more critical view.”

In the upcoming elections, the public’s low confidence in state leadership could be “yet another tool in the toolbox for people running against incumbents,” MacKay said.


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