Baker still Mr. Popularity, but his T is not

63% view governor favorably; only 28% say T improving

CHARLIE BAKER WALKS on water. Earlier this year, National Journal dubbed him “the most popular politician in America,” and he remains close to those lofty heights today. He has a sparkling favorability rating, according to a new poll from The MassINC Polling Group, with 63 percent of Massachusetts voters viewing him favorably, compared to just 10 percent who see him unfavorably.

Baker has maintained popularity while weathering storms both literal and figurative: the snowfall that crippled the MBTA, an early budget crunch, an ongoing opioid epidemic, and the deaths of several children in the care of the state’s Department of Children and Families. All these issues were ongoing before Baker took office, but these new numbers show he is so far escaping blame for their continuation.

Baker has remained popular in part by maintaining an image as a moderate. He has refused to take positions on a number of controversial issues (but not all). He has stayed above the fray of the GOP presidential nomination process and remain focused on his job, although he stirred controversy on Monday by joining other Republican governors (and Democratic New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan) in opposing the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states.  This has left him with massively positive net favorables across party lines. A whopping 70 percent of unenrolled voters view him favorably, a bit higher even than his standing among Republicans. Even half of Democrats (51 percent) hold a favorable view of him. This may explain why Democrats have been notably reluctant to criticize the governor.

One of the defining issues of Baker’s first year was the failure of the MBTA during this past winter’s record snowfalls. Baker appointed a special panel to review not only the T’s winter performance but operations at the agency generally. The panel recommended a Fiscal Management and Control Board to oversee the T. Winning approval for that board, along with a 3-year exemption for the T from the state’s anti-privatization law, was one Baker’s first political victories.

These steps, and the work of the control board, have also given voters some confidence in Baker’s handling of the issue. Around half (52 percent) approve of his approach, little changed from a July poll. But approval for Baker does not equate to confidence in the T. Only 28 percent think things have gotten better this year. And despite a well-publicized, $84 million winterization program, just 37 percent think the T is prepared to handle another winter like last year’s. In Boston and the inner suburbs, a majority (54 percent) think the T is not ready.

Some of these poor numbers may be the administration’s own doing. Although positive steps have been taken, they are often snowed under by a blizzard of negative headlines of the administration’s own making. Both the governor’s special panel and the new control board have elevated the delivery of bad MBTA news to an art form. Whatever the motive for this naysaying, these stories likely do not help voters’ impressions.

The big question going forward is whether future events such as another disastrous winter performance, or larger-than-expected fare hikes, will begin to leave a mark on the still wildly popular governor.

Steve Koczela is the president and Rich Parr is research director of the MassINC Polling Group, a subsidiary of MassINC, which publishes CommonWealth magazine. Poll numbers in this story come from a poll conducted by the MassINC Polling Group of 500 registered voters in Massachusetts from November 9-12, 2015. Live telephone interviews were conducted via both landline and cell phone using conventional registration-based sampling procedures. The margin of error is 4.4 percentage points at the 95 level of confidence.