U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos didn’t enjoy the smoothest confirmation process, to put it mildly. How has that affected public perceptions of her? It doesn’t seem to have helped.
At least that’s the conclusion you could draw from a recent nationwide poll from Saint Leo University, in St. Leo, Florida.
Using an online survey, the university’s Polling Institute asked 1,073 adults for their impressions of various high-profile members of Trump’s administration. The response? More than half of those polled, or 52.3 percent, said they either somewhat or strongly disapproved of DeVos. Among those surveyed, 41 percent said they “strongly disapproved” of DeVos, while 11.3 percent said they “somewhat disapproved” of her. Her combined approval rating was 34.5 percent, also the lowest.
The second-most-unpopular top Trump official, among the six on the list, according to the poll, was Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, whose combined disapproval rating was a shade under 50 percent. Secretary of Defense James Mattis enjoyed the lowest combined disapproval rating, clocking in at just under 30 percent. The survey also asked people about their general impressions of Trump’s cabinet picks, and their combined approval rating was 40.5 percent, while their combined disapproval rating was 51.9 percent. Saint Leo also asked about Trump’s handling of various topics, but did not ask about education specifically.
The Saint Leo University poll was conducted from March 3 to March 11, and had a margin of error of 3 percent.
It should be noted that this survey did not ask about all of Trump’s cabinet picks, only three—DeVos, Mattis, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In addition to Conway, the other names in the survey included Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist; Kellyanne , counselor to the president; and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son in law and a senior adviser. This poll doesn’t tell us about other cabinet members who have made waves early on, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt.
Frank Orlando, the director of the Saint Leo University Polling Institute, said he would have included Pruitt and Tillerson in the poll if he’d had more space. But he said even if they had been included, they probably would have been viewed more favorably than DeVos.
“I think that she clearly was one of the more-visible cabinet appointments,” Orlando said, citing the teachers’ unions’ high-profile campaign against her and the one-vote margin in the Senate that confirmed her as secretary.
In discussing the controversy over her nomination, DeVos indicated that she believed the backlash was generated because of the new ideas she would bring to the U.S. Department of Education, and because those ideas represented a threat to the status quo in education.
The Education Department declined to comment on the poll.
In one sense, it’s hard to argue that DeVos had the toughest time of all Trump’s nominees. After all, the president’s first pick for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, withdrew his name from consideration after his support among GOP senators eroded.
When President Barack Obama was beginning his own presidential transition process, at least one poll indicated that he was getting high public marks for his cabinet picks, based in part on the perception that his cabinet picks didn’t all have the same political views.
But by 2014, perceptions of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had soured somewhat, at least among Beltway types. That year, a survey of education “insiders” by Whiteboard Advisors found that Duncan’s combined approval rating (those who either somewhat or strongly disapproved of the job he was doing) was 42 percent, compared to his 58 percent combined disapproval rating. And just 36 percent approved of the job he’d done on K-12. By 2014, disparate constituencies ranging from GOP senators to teachers’ unions had become critical of Duncan’s handling of issues like Race to the Top grants and the Common Core State Standards.
The Saint Leo University Polling Institute did not exist in 2009 and therefore doesn’t have directly comparable polling on Duncan.
However, remember also that Duncan sailed through his confirmation hearing in 2009, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., now head of the Senate education committee, praised him as the best of Obama’s cabinet picks. DeVos doesn’t seem to be starting with the same broad base of good will.
“It’s clear that the education secretary is becoming a more visible person,” Orlando said.