Two years ago, Gov. Peter Shumlin was riding high on a wave of popularity.

The governor's approval rating was 65.1 percent in the spring of 2012 as the election season began, thanks in no small part to the successes of his first term in office. Vermonters overwhelmingly supported his handling of Tropical Storm Irene, and there was broad support for the passage of Act 48, a plan for single-payer health care that the governor initiated. The WCAX/Castleton poll from 2012 showed that 22.6 percent of voters disapproved of Shumlin after his first two years in office.

In a VTDigger/Castleton Polling Institute poll conducted from March 31 to April 6 this year, nearly half of those polled (49 percent) approve of the job that Shumlin is doing. Forty percent of respondents said they disapproved of the governor's job performance.

Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College, says Shumlin's popularity has waned since 2012 somewhat due to a variety of factors, including incumbency.

"The passage of time affects every governor," Davis says. Typically, an incumbent loses 2 percentage points to 3 percentage points over an election cycle, he says. Govs. Howard Dean and James Douglas, he said, both had similarly high approval ratings, then saw approval ratings decline over time.

"I'm not surprised that his [Shumlin's] approval rating is lower than two years ago," Davis said, "but to lose 15 points in two years is a pretty good drop. The question is, why is Shumlin less popular today?"

Davis said there are several plausible explanations. The decline in Shumlin's approval rating could be due in part to stories about the governor's land deal with his neighbor, Jeremy Dodge, last year. Or voters could be disappointed that he missed the deadline for revealing financing plans for single payer health care and has not been transparent about how the program will be paid for.

If the poll had been conducted at the request of a candidate, Davis said, it would have asked whether the drop in Shumlin's popularity has to do with Vermonters' perceptions of the governor's personal character. The question, he said, is "Do they (voters) trust him less?"

Davis also speculates that despite the state's low unemployment rate, incomes among middle class Vermonters (in the $40,000 to $100,000 household income range) have stagnated. When voters feel uneasy about their own financial prospects they often blame political leaders. "The governor can't do much about that," Davis said. "But voters will hold the administration responsible if they feel they are not as prosperous as they ought to be."

It's also possible respondents don't like what the governor is doing on particular issues. Those factors could include dissatisfaction on the left from anti-wind and anti-gas pipeline activists who believe the governor is too cozy with big power companies and environmentalists who believe the governor isn't doing enough to clean up Lake Champlain, Davis said.

"When you add all these things up, I'm not surprised it's 49 percent, not 65 percent," Davis said. "He is going to have to work harder than he did two years ago and he may have to start his campaign earlier than he would like to."

Davis says there is no question that the odds are stacked in Shumlin's favor in a contest with a Republican challenger like Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, a 43-year-old Stowe native who is contemplating a race for governor. Scheuermann doesn't have statewide name recognition, but the fact that she's young, moderate and a woman, gives her an edge, Davis said, over conservatives like former state Sen. Randy Brock, who lost to Shumlin in 2012.

Scheuermann worked for Sen. James Jeffords in the late 1990s and then again in the early 2000s when he left the Republican Party to become an independent. "Through the experience she's had with Jeffords, she knows a Republican has to appeal to centrist voters," Davis said. She also was one of a handful of Republicans who voted for gay marriage in 2009, and that inoculates her against accusations that she is a social conservative, Davis says. (Brock voted against gay marriage.)

Her big challenge is low name recognition. The only way to build that up is through media coverage, Davis said, and he suggested that Vermonters First or the Republican Governors Association could bankroll independent ads that would giver her a lift.

Media buys from an outside group on Scheuermann's behalf could force Shumlin to spend some of his $1 million war chest or take money from the Democratic Governors Association and spend it in Vermont, Davis said.

"I'm interested to see if Heidi Scheuermann could get to 45 percent and within 10 points of Shumlin," Davis said.

Though it's likely Scheuermann would lose, Davis said if she runs a credible campaign she'll have a shot at another statewide campaign down the road. "She could be the TJ Donovan of the Republican Party," Davis said. (Donovan narrowly lost a bid for Vermont Attorney General in 2012.) Even if she doesn't win, her run would be very positive for the GOP. "A 40ish woman as the standard-bearer for the Republican Party would be good for the Republican Party."

Another factor? There will be a low voter turnout this year. It is an off-presidential year election and there is no Senate race this season. (Once every 12 years there is no presidential or Senate race.) In presidential election cycles, the turnout in Vermont is about 70 percent, and in years in which there is a Senate race turnout is about 55 percent, Davis said. He expects about 50 percent of registered voters will go to the polls in the 2014 General Election, based on historic precedent.

44% approve of Vermont Legislature

Respondents to the VTDigger/Castleton poll gave the Vermont Legislature an approval rating of 44 percent. Thirty-three percent disapprove of the Legislature's job performance and 23 percent had no opinion.

The Vermont Legislature has a much higher approval rating than Congress, which came in at 13 percent in January 2014, according to a Gallup poll.

Davis says the Vermont Legislature, which is dominated by Democrats in the House and the Senate, doesn't suffer from same perceptions that Congress does, which has been mired in partisan conflict.

Republicans now hold less than 30 percent of the seats in the General Assembly.

Davis says the GOP can pick up three seats in the Senate and six to eight in the House if the party is strategic about which races it targets this election cycle. Certain districts north of Route 2 hold the best promise for Republicans, in his view.

In the Senate, Republicans could have competitive races in traditionally Republican strongholds, including Rutland, Franklin and Orleans counties. Pat McDonald, a former Republican representative from Berlin, is a strong contender in Washington County, he says, and Republican Dustin Degree could have a better chance in this election cycle. Eldred French, an appointed Democrat from Rutland, and Democrat John Rogers, from Orleans, could both be vulnerable, he says.

Methodology

The VTDigger/Castleton Polling Institute poll is based on data from 682 interviews drawn from a random sample of registered voters in Vermont. Interviews were conducted by phone by from March 31 to April 7, 2014. Thirteen percent of interviews were conducted with registered voters on cell phones.

For a sample of this size, the margin of error at the 95 percent confidence level is +/-4 percent, although the margin of error is larger for questions involving subsamples of respondents. Although sampling error is only one source of potential survey error, precautions have been taken to minimize other sources of error for this poll.

The data reported are weighted based on estimations of the population of Vermont registered voters to account for differential in response rates among age groups.