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With nearly three years as governor complete, and as she kicks off a reelection campaign, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem is enjoying strong statewide support for her performance, according to a new poll.
The poll of 500 registered voters conducted in late October showed that a majority of South Dakotans support the governor’s performance, with an average of 61.2% of respondents strongly or somewhat in approval of her performance across five topic areas. About 37% of overall respondents somewhat or strongly disapproved of Noem’s performance on the five topics.
Noem, 50, is a former state lawmaker and member of Congress who was elected South Dakota governor in 2018. Noem has announced she is running for reelection in 2022, and will face a GOP primary challenge from state Rep. Steve Haugaard, a Sioux Falls attorney and former speaker of the state House of Representatives.
David Wiltse, a political science professor at South Dakota State University, said the poll results bode well for Noem as she seeks another term.
“This is, for the most part, pretty good news for her,” said Wiltse, who reviewed the poll results. “If I were her and I was looking at this, I would be really happy; it’s just that simple.”
The random telephone poll was conducted Oct. 20-23, 2021, by Mason Dixon and was sponsored by South Dakota News Watch and the Chiesman Center for Democracy at the University of South Dakota. The poll is the latest effort in the South Dakota Matters series of polls and community conversations sponsored by News Watch. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.5%.
Noem has positioned herself as a conservative Republican and has garnered national attention for her relatively hands-off approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, in which she pushed to keep businesses open, encouraged visitors to come to the state and railed against vaccine mandates.
Republicans were the most supportive of Noem, a first-term GOP governor, with 74.5% of Republicans strongly or somewhat in approval of her performance on five topics. Independents were less supportive, with 66.4% strongly or somewhat supportive. Among Democrats, who showed strong disapproval of Noem’s performance, 24.7% were strongly or somewhat in approval of her performance, with just over 65% of Democrats somewhat or strongly disapproving.
Noem’s performance ratings in the October 2021 poll rose in comparison with a similar News Watch/Chiesman Center poll conducted in October 2020, near the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Dakota. At that time, 53.8% of respondents overall were strongly or somewhat approving of Noem’s performance, while 40.9% were strongly or somewhat disapproving.
On her handling of the economy, 69.4% of respondents in the 2021 poll strongly or somewhat approved of her performance; 65.6% strongly or somewhat approved of her performance on managing the pandemic; 72.0% strongly or somewhat approved of her focus on problems specific to South Dakota; and 61.6% strongly or somewhat approved of her upholding of the integrity of the office.
Noem did not fare as well on her handling of marijuana legalization, with only 39.2% of respondents strongly or somewhat in approval, and 17.8% somewhat disapproving and 33.4% strongly disapproving of her performance.
Emily Wanless, a political science professor at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, said Noem may appear increasingly strong among her supporters due to her higher national profile, which has brought attention to South Dakota. Noem has also had more time in office to show supporters she is willing to lead, Wanless said.
“I think she’s established herself as an executive in the state,” Wanless said. “If you’re more comfortable with someone as the decision maker, and she’s made it clear she is going to be the decision maker, there’s a rallying-around-the-flag effect.”
Wanless said Noem also benefits from being a Republican in a state with supermajority GOP control in the Legislature and all statewide offices being held by Republicans.
That level of support, Wanless said, has likely made Noem feel comfortable attacking or mocking people or groups that disagree with her, such as in a recent Tweet where she encouraged vegans to eat meat on World Vegan Day and posted a photo of herself with a gun and a dead pheasant.
“You can do that in a state like South Dakota, where you have a supermajority of party support,” said Wanless, who reviewed the poll results. “She doesn’t have to rely on appeasing the vegans, not even a handful; she doesn’t need any of them.”
Yet Wanless said divisive or mocking statements by the governor only add to the binary polarization sweeping politics in America and South Dakota.
“It’s not just that people are disagreeing on issues,” she said. “Polarization is taking shots at somebody’s morals, values and integrity, and for some reason, that resonates with her crowd to make these politicized statements and stances.”
Julia Hellwege, a political science professor at USD who also reviewed the poll results, said Noem’s dismissive nature toward those who disagree with her or question her actions may strengthen her hold on her conservative electoral base, but ultimately is not helpful in making South Dakota better and more welcoming to all residents. Operating on the far conservative edge of politics is essentially dismissing the desires and views of the 26% of voters in South Dakota who are registered Democrats, Hellwege said.
“Is the job of elected officials to continue to get re-elected and only speak to their partisans, or is it the job of elected officials to represent all people in the state?” Hellwege asked. “Looking at these poll numbers, there’s nothing more that she can do to make Democrats more disappointed in her.”
Hellwege said she hopes Noem can soften some of her rhetoric in order to reduce political polarization in the state.
“I think she’s perfectly comfortable to continue to push along her agenda, which most Republicans approve of, even [to] the detriment of the minority parties of the state. Polarization in the electorate is not very healthy for civic engagement, so if you would like to see more civic engagement and more civil discourse and compromise, then yes, I would like her to speak more toward the minority parties.”
Gov. Kristi Noem performance poll
The poll of 500 registered South Dakota voters asked respondents in late October 2021 to rate Gov. Noem’s performance on several topics. Chart shows overall response followed by results broken out by party affiliation, including Republicans, Democrats and Independents.
MANAGING THE ECONOMY
Overall 43.8% strongly approve — Rep 63.0%; Dem 5.1%; Ind 49.6%
Overall 25.6% somewhat approve — Rep 19.8%; Dem 32.9%; Ind 28.8%
Overall 11.6% somewhat disapprove — Rep 10.9%; Dem 16.1%; Ind 8.0%
Overall 16.2% strongly disapprove — Rep 3.8%; Dem 41.6%; Ind 12.0%
Overall 2.8% no opinion — Rep 2.5%; Dem 4.4%; Ind 1.6%
MANAGING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
Overall 48.8% strongly approve — Rep 67.2%; Dem 13.8%; Ind 52.0%
Overall 6.8% somewhat approve — Rep 16.4%; Dem 14.6%; Ind 20.0%
Overall 9.8% somewhat disapprove — Rep 7.6%; Dem 12.4%; Ind 11.2%
Overall 23.2% strongly disapprove — Rep 7.1%; Dem 57.7%; Ind 16.0%
Overall 1.4% no opinion — Rep 1.4%; Dem 1.5%; Ind 0.8%
FOCUSING ON PROBLEMS SPECIFIC TO SOUTH DAKOTA
Overall 38.6% strongly approve — Rep 52.5%; Dem 10.2%; Ind 43.2%
Overall 22.2% somewhat approve — Rep 23.5%; Dem 13.9%; Ind 28.8%
Overall 10.2% somewhat disapprove — Rep 8.4%; Dem 16.8%; Ind 6.4%
Overall 24,6% strongly disapprove — Rep 12.2%; Dem 53.3%; Ind 16.8%
Overall 4.4% no opinion — Rep 3.4%; Dem 5.8%; Ind 4.8%
LEGALIZATION OF MARIJUANA
Overall 25.8% strongly approve — Rep 32.4%; Dem 16.1%; Ind 24.0%
Overall 17.8% somewhat approve — Rep 18.9%; Dem 18.3%; Ind 15.2%
Overall 17.8% somewhat disapprove — Rep 15.6%; Dem 22.6%; Ind 16.8%
Overall 33.4% strongly disapprove — Rep 27.7%; Dem 38.0%; Ind 39.2%
Overall 5.2% no opinion — Rep 5.4%; Dem 5.1%; Ind 4.8%
UPHOLDING INTEGRITY OF THE OFFICE
Overall 43.0% strongly approve — Rep 60.9%; Dem 8.8%; Ind 46.4%
Overall 18.6% somewhat approve — Rep 18.1%; Dem 13.9%; Ind 24.8%
Overall 10.4% somewhat disapprove — Rep 7.1%; Dem 22.6%; Ind 3.2%
Overall 26.4% strongly disapprove — Rep 12.6%; Dem 54.0%; Ind 22.4%
Overall 1.6% no opinion — Rep 1.2%; Dem 1.0%; Ind 3.2%
Impact of ‘micro-scandals’
Meanwhile, Wiltse also said that Noem is unlikely to lose any major support within the Republican Party due to any perceived missteps or controversies. During her first term, Noem has faced scrutiny on a number of issues, such as her frequent out-of-state political travel, sparring with Native American tribes, questions surrounding potential favoritism shown to her daughter in obtaining an appraiser’s license, and most recently, reporting that showed she spent $8,000 in taxpayer money on a sauna and thousands more on rugs, chandeliers and other upgrades to the governor’s mansion.
Wiltse said most Republicans and conservative Independents in South Dakota are likely to overlook the negative press and continue to support Noem at election time.
“When it comes to the what I would call ‘micro scandals,’ these are fairly tame accusations relative to other political scandals across the country,” he said. “When it comes to these kinds of critiques, they typically don’t resonate all that much within that person’s own party. You’re more likely to forgive people or yourself for certain behaviors then you would be for someone from an outside group.”
Wiltse said the apparent effort by Haugaard to label Noem as not conservative enough is unlikely to help him prevail in the GOP primary.
“Taking her out from within the Republican Party is going to be a really hard climb,” he said. “You’d have to find some really narrow wedge issues to split people off from the right at this point.”
Wiltse said that despite the generally positive poll results on the governor’s performance, Noem has won some elections with narrow margins and has not been as popular in previous polls as other statewide politicians and members of Congress from South Dakota.
“One thing we’ve always been curious about, and this poll doesn’t really answer it, is why she has softer support than other statewide Republicans when it comes to overall approval,” Wiltse said. “That’s always been a signal to us that there’s some weaknesses here, but we haven’t been able to identify those yet.”
Public trust in oversight of political redistricting
The poll asked the following question regarding the redistricting process that was recently undertaken during a special session of the state Legislature in South Dakota.
How much trust do you have in the following groups to draw fair, common-sense political boundaries during redistricting?
Small group of elected officials
Overall 14.8% great deal of trust
Overall 49.0% fair amount of trust
Overall 21.8% not much trust
Overall 11.4% no trust at all
Overall 3.0% not sure
Independent non-partisan commission
Overall 18.4% great deal of trust
Overall 46.4% fair amount of trust
Overall 18.6% not much trust
Overall 11.2% no trust at all
Overall 5.4% not sure
South Dakota Legislature
Overall 11.6% great deal of trust
Overall 46.6% fair amount of trust
Overall 23.8% not much trust
Overall 13.8% no trust at all
Overall 4.2% not sure
South Dakota governor
Overall 40.8% great deal of trust
Overall 18.2% fair amount of trust
Overall 10.4% not much trust
Overall 28.2% no trust at all
Overall 2.4% not sure
South Dakota Supreme Court
Overall 30.4% great deal of trust
Overall 42.8% fair amount of trust
Overall 14.8% not much trust
Overall 9.4% no trust at all
Overall 2.6% not sure
Computer generated formula
Overall 8.4% great deal of trust
Overall 25.8% fair amount of trust
Overall 23.8% not much trust
Overall 34.2% no trust at all
Overall 7.8% not sure
Wanless said Noem should pay attention to how voters who self-identified as Independent in the poll responded, as those voters can play a big role in statewide elections in South Dakota. As of Dec. 1, 2021, 48.5% of South Dakota voters were registered as Republicans, 26.6% were registered as Democrats and 24.2% were registered as Independent or No Party Affiliation.
Wanless noted that even in GOP-dominated South Dakota, Noem defeated Democrat Billy Sutton in the 2018 gubernatorial election by only 51.0% to 47.6%, a difference of about 11,000 votes.
“Especially when you think about how close the governor’s race was, it doesn’t matter where Republicans or Democrats stand, because we know where they will fall on Election Day,” she said. “What really matters is where Independents stand, because they are going to make or break whether a Democrat can win or not.”
In the News Watch/Chiesman 2021 poll, Independents across the board were not as supportive of Noem as Republicans, with a margin as high as 10 points in disapproval rating on two of the five topics.
Hellwege said she was not surprised to see that Noem’s support has risen among women, who were far less supportive of the governor in the News Watch/Chiesman poll conducted in November 2020.
“There were certainly more caretaker type of issues at that time, and women tend to be the primary caretaker in many families,” she said.
Wiltse said the softer support for Noem’s handling of marijuana legalization is likely because South Dakota voters approved both medical and recreational marijuana in separate referenda and may have been disappointed to see Noem successfully challenge recreational legalization in court.
Overall, 51.2% of poll respondents either somewhat or strongly disapproved of Noem’s handling of marijuana legalization, including a third who strongly disapproved. Of the five topics on which Noem was rated in the poll, she fared by far the worst in regard to marijuana.
“The people did weigh in on it, and it’s very easy to see what she is doing as far as working to counter what 53 percent of the voters said they wanted in regard to recreational marijuana,” Wiltse said.
As the 2022 elections approach, Wiltse said Noem may move even more to the political right to ensure her base of GOP supporters is motivated.
“I really don’t think she has too much to worry about, but she is going to be guarded” and may work even harder to satisfy her conservative base, Wiltse said. “She may stake out positions more to the right than she has done.”
Noem’s communications director, Ian Fury, said in an email to News Watch that the poll results show that voters have a high trust level in the governor.
“Governor Noem trusted the people of South Dakota to exercise their freedoms, and it’s clear they continue to trust her in return. The governor will continue to focus on South Dakota priorities,” Fury wrote.
Trust in South Dakota Legislature lacking
The News Watch/Chiesman Center poll showed that respondents are not as trusting of the Legislature as they are of other government or legal institutions, and that a fair number of people do not believe the Legislature uses its time on the biggest issues facing the state.
When it comes to less-than-stellar poll results regarding the state Legislature, Hellwege said she is not surprised that some South Dakotans, including some Republicans, do not give high marks in trust or in what lawmakers spend their time on.
The poll showed that in regard to trust to do a good job on redistricting, the Legislature has the lowest percentage of respondents indicating “a great deal” or “fair amount” (58.2%) of trust as opposed to a computer-generation model (34.2%).
Meanwhile, only 9.8% of respondents said the Legislature spends “a great deal of its time” on the most pressing issues facing South Dakota, and roughly a third reported that the Legislature spends “not very much time” or “almost none of its time” on the most pressing issues.
Hellwege said that in recent years the Legislature, whose only requirement is to pass an annual state budget, may appear to some voters to have veered away from issues that affect a large number of people and instead spent time legislating on transgender issues, abortion and higher education.
“It seems like people are not wanting them to spend their time on that,” Hellwege said. “There’s a set of legislators who focus on one issue being the main thing they’re concerned about, and it seems the people might be saying, ‘Please spend more time on the things we really care about.’”
Hellwege said the Legislature meets for such a short time each year that it can be difficult to pass a budget and address complicated issues, especially with virtually no support staff in place in South Dakota.
Wiltse said state legislatures, like Congress, may be disliked or distrusted as institutions by the electorate even as individual lawmakers continue to have voter support.
“Broadly speaking, these are not terribly surprising,” he said. “When it comes to people’s approval of our major institutions, Congress or legislatures, they don’t do as well as governors, presidents or the courts.”
Wiltse said poll results critical of the Legislature are unlikely to change the way the institution or individual members operate.
“We don’t like legislatures in the aggregate … though we may love our individual members,” he said. “It’s like with Congress … people hate Congress as an institution, but then members get reelected 90% of the time.”
Legislative priorities and public official accountability poll
The poll asked respondents if they think the South Dakota Legislature spends its time on issues of high statewide importance, with overall results provided and results broken out by party affiliation including Republicans, Democrats and Independents.
How much of its time does the state Legislature spend on the most pressing issues facing South Dakota?
Overall 9.8% a great deal of its time — Rep 13.5%; Dem 5.1%; Ind 8.0%
Overall 46.5% a fair amount of its time — Rep 52.5%; Dem 25.6%; Ind 56.0%
Overall 23.6% not very much of its time — Rep 18.9%; Dem 36.5%; Ind 18.4%
Overall 7.4% almost none of its time — Rep 2.9%; Dem 16.8%; Ind 5.6%
Overall 13.2% not sure — Rep 12.2%; Dem 16.1%; Ind 12.0%
A separate question asked about the accountability of public officials in South Dakota, with overall results provided and results broken out by party affiliation including Republicans, Democrats and Independents.
How accountable are public officials to the public?
Overall 10.0% very accountable — Rep 12.2%; Dem 5.8%; Ind 10.4%
Overall 43.2% somewhat accountable — Rep 45.8%; Dem 42.3%; Ind — 39.2%;
Overall 32.3% not too accountable — Rep 30.7%; Dem 32.1%; Ind 35.2%;
Overall 12.6% not accountable at all — Rep 10.1%; Dem 16.8%; Ind 12.8%
Overall 2.0% not sure — Rep 1.3%; Dem 2.9%; Ind 2.4%
About Bart Pfankuch
Bart Pfankuch, Rapid City, S.D., is the content director for South Dakota News Watch. A Wisconsin native, he is a former editor of the Rapid City Journal and also worked at newspapers in Florida. Bart has spent more than 30 years as a reporter, editor and writing coach.