As talk of his possible presidential campaign heats up, Gov. Chris Sununu’s approval numbers in New Hampshire remain strong, according to the UNH Survey Center.
In the latest Granite State Poll, a States of Opinion Project, UNH found 62 percent of Granite Staters approve of Sununu’s performance as governor, with a net approval rating of +27. Both of those numbers have remained relatively consistent throughout 2023.
Sununu’s job approval is 91 percent among Republicans, 64 percent among independents, and a respectable 34 percent among Democrats.
Between November and December 2022, Sununu’s approval saw a relatively steep decline from nearly 70 percent to the low 50s.
“Always happens,” said Professor Andrew Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center. “People get more partisan in their opinions of candidates as elections approach and then settle back down once the election has passed,” referring to the 2022 midterms in which Sununu was a candidate for reelection.
Since then, however, Sununu’s numbers have been rebounding and have leveled off at around 60 percent for three months in a row.
The poll also asked respondents to describe Sununu in one word. Those who approve of his job performance most commonly said he was “competent.” Rounding out the top five were “capable,” “moderate,” “consistent,” and “bipartisan.”
On the one hand, being most often described as “competent” among New Hampshire adults bodes well for someone considering a run for the White House against the likes of Donald Trump and Joe Biden. According to the most recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist National Poll this month, 62 percent of Americans are concerned about President Biden’s mental fitness, while 51 percent said former President Trump’s mental fitness is concerning, as well.
As governor of New Hampshire, being “competent,” “capable,” “moderate,” “consistent,” and “bipartisan” has contributed to Sununu’s electoral success in the state, most recently winning reelection by nearly 16 points in 2022.
However, being known as “moderate” and “bipartisan” could be a liability for Sununu in the Republican presidential primary. He was even described by many who approve of his performance in UNH’s poll as a “RINO.”
“The very adjectives that voters attribute to Sununu, and like about him, will be the very things that make a presidential run so difficult for Sununu,” said UNH Political Science Professor Dante Scala. “Even in New Hampshire, there’s a large number of Republicans who approve of the job he’s doing as governor but don’t support him in a run for president, and those [adjectives] are the very reasons.”
Although this poll published results from New Hampshire adults – not likely Republican voters – it is still the same image that Sununu has had to grapple with while mulling over his own Republican primary campaign. And how he fares in that contest has been less-than-promising based on early polling.
Just last month, only 12 percent of likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire said they would vote for Sununu in the Republican primary in UNH’s Granite State Poll. In the same poll, only 35 percent of likely Republican primary voters wanted Sununu to run for president in 2024, down from the 42 percent who said so in January.
In a growing field of conservative candidates, all fighting over a primary electorate consisting of typically the most partisan and engaged voters in the party, can the “moderate” Sununu find a winning lane in 2024?
“It’s a lot more difficult than it used to be to pivot from being a popular governor to making a successful bid for the presidency,” added Scala.
Asked whether Sununu will embrace the image or fight it should he enter the presidential race, Scala said, “I don’t know if he can shake that. How is he going to shake being bipartisan, being a moderate, when there are hundreds of quotes extolling his bipartisanship?”
Therefore, Scala concluded, “He would likely lean into it. Voters aren’t stupid. You can rework things around the edges, but I’m skeptical that people can reinvent themselves. He’s either going to do it his own way, or he’s going to come to the realization, if he hasn’t already, that he can’t succeed doing it his own way, and therefore he’s ultimately not going to try.”
The numbers and adjectives could spell trouble for a Sununu campaign in New Hampshire. If Sununu can’t win the First-in-the-Nation primary in his home state, it would be hard to imagine a way for him to make it across the finish line in other primary contests nationwide.
The UNH Survey Center surveyed 1,105 respondents online between May 18 and May 22 with a response rate of 28 percent.