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Media Myth Exposed: Loss of Democratic Governorships Not Key to Obama's 2012 Battleground State Prospects

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Since 1968, Democratic presidential candidates have had the same success rate in carrying states with Democratic governors as Republican governors - 33 percent

As the election returns poured in three weeks ago, many newscasters and political analysts remarked at how Barack Obama's biggest losses in 2010 may not have been in the U.S. House, but in the many governorships lost to Republicans in battleground states:

"Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, these are all big electoral vote states and they had Democratic governors. They now got Republican governors and, as Carl can tell you, governors matter a lot. They can actually help in a presidential year in terms of which way the state goes." - Joe Trippi, former Howard Dean campaign manager (FOX News, November 2, 2010).
"A big call now, Ohio governor. FOX News can project that John Kasich will be the governor of Ohio beating Democrat, Ted Strickland. It's hard to overestimate the importance of this win. When you look at 2012, the president visited Ohio -- President Obama visited Ohio 12 times. Vice President Biden visited seven times and they tried to rally the base for Ted Strickland." - Bret Baier (FOX News, November 2, 2010)

The governor's mansion flipped from Democratic to Republican control in the battleground states of Iowa, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (with Democrats having already ceded the governor's mansion to the GOP in 2009 in New Jersey and Virginia).

The hypothesis - emphasized repeatedly across the broadcast networks - seems logical on its face:

With a Democrat in the governor's office in a particular state, the ability for the Party to establish the political networks and ground game needed for Obama to win that state in the 2012 presidential election will be much easier than if a Republican is in the governor's office.

But is there any evidence to support this claim or is it simply a frame used by the media in its election night coverage?

A Smart Politics analysis of 550 statewide presidential election results dating back to 1968 finds there to be no correlation between states won by Democratic and Republican presidential nominees and the partisan control of the governor's mansion.

Democratic presidential candidates have won virtually an identical percentage of states in which they have held control of the governor's mansion (33.8 percent) as those in which Republicans had control (32.3 percent).

Likewise, success for Republican nominees has been essentially the same in states with GOP governors (67.3 percent) as those with Democratic governors (65.2 percent).

"If you look at the governors' races particularly in states like Ohio and Florida, your mind moves ahead or at least mine does to 2012, because Barack Obama would certainly like to have Democrats as governors in those states. It certainly helped George W. Bush when his brother was governor of the state of Florida. And I think that if he loses those, it's going to be -- it's not going to be fun. New Mexico is also another." - Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst (CNN, November 2, 2010)

Indeed, Democrats have enjoyed no such advantage in winning states over the last 11 presidential election cycles in which they controlled the governor's mansion.

Since 1968, Democratic presidential nominees have won just 100 of 296 states under Democratic gubernatorial control, or 33.8 percent.

However, Democrats have had nearly an identical success rate in those states run by Republican governors: winning 80 of 248 states, or 32.3 percent.

(Democrats have also won four of six states that were governed by third parties or independents at the time of the presidential election).

But it's not simply the Democratic Party's inability to capitalize on the purported 'gubernatorial advantage' in presidential elections.

Republican presidential nominees have also failed to carry states under Republican control at any greater rate than when a state's governor is a Democrat.

GOP presidential nominees have won 167 of 248 states with Republicans in the governor's mansion (67.3 percent), with practically no drop off in their success rate in carrying a state when Democrats are in charge - winning 193 of 296 states, or 65.2 percent.

Presidential Candidate Rate of Success by Partisan Control of Governor's Office, 1968-2008

Governor
Dem
GOP
3rd
Total
% Dem
% GOP
Democrat
100
193
3
296
33.8
65.2
Republican
80
167
1
248
32.3
67.3
Other
4
2
0
6
66.7
33.3
Data compiled by Smart Politics.

Overall, Democratic and Republican presidential nominees have carried more states in which they did not control the governor's mansion since 1968 (283 states, 51.5 percent) than states in which they did (267 states, 48.5 percent).

"The governors' races - also critically important in 2012. Again, look at all this blue. Look at all the blue, especially in the big Rust Belt states. Those are critical presidential battlegrounds. There's how we began. There's where we ended. Why does that matter to the president of the United States? Well, Barack Obama carried Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan; I could go on and on. These are all states the president carried...If you're the president of the United States and you are looking at this map, the electoral map has changed so dramatically today from where it was not only yesterday, but when he won that big victory in 2008. So that is a challenge for the president." - John King, (CNN, November 3, 2010)

And as for several of the battleground states for which gubernatorial control flipped from the Democrats to Republicans in 2010?

Modern political history provides dozens of illustrations in which Democratic presidential nominees carried those states while they were under Republican control.

· In Iowa, where former GOP Governor Terry Branstad upended one-term Democrat Chet Culver, Democrats pulled out three consecutive presidential victories under previous Branstad administrations: 1988, 1992, and 1996.

· In Michigan, where Republican Rick Snyder carried the open seat race by nearly 20 points, Hubert Humphrey (1968), Bill Clinton (1992, 1996), and Al Gore (2000) all carried the state with a Republican in the governor's mansion.

· Democrats suffered one of their most devastating gubernatorial losses in Ohio, with incumbent Ted Strickland losing to GOPer John Kasich. However, the Buckeye State has voted for Democrats three times in presidential elections with Republican governors at the helm (1976, 1992, 1996).

· In Pennsylvania, where Republican Tom Corbett won the Keystone State's open seat race, Democrats have prevailed under previous Republican governorships in 1968, 1996, and 2000.

· In Wisconsin, where Republican Scott Walker won the Badger State's open seat race, Democratic presidential nominees ran the table during all four presidential elections held during GOPer Tommy Thompson's reign: 1988, 1992, 1996, and 2000.

· There is also precedent for Democratic presidential victories in other battleground states with newly-crowned GOP governors, such as Maine (1992), Nevada (2008), New Jersey (1996, 2000), and New Mexico (1996, 2000).

Greta Van Susteren: "And Kirsten, in terms of 2012, I mean, you know, there's a lot of eye on Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, the governors' races, isn't there."
Kirsten Powers, FOX contributor: "...If you look at 2012, the states you just mentioned are very important in the presidential election. You are in a much better place if you have your governor in place there, running, you know, pretty much everything." (FOX News, November 2, 2010)

The body of evidence against the current media paradigm is even more overwhelming when examining states that recently lost Republican governorships in 2010, such as Minnesota and Rhode Island.

Since 1968, both of those states, along with Massachusetts, have cast their Electoral College votes for six Democratic presidential nominees while Republicans were serving as governor of their respective states.

On the flip side, Republican presidential nominees have carried states governed by Democrats seven times during this 40-year span in Kansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Wyoming and six times in Arizona, Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, and North Dakota.

All this begs the question: where did the media and political analysts come up with this story, which is not rooted in any modern historical evidence?

A deeper historical analysis shows - prior to 1968 - there used to be a much stronger correlation between the party serving in the governor's mansion and the party's nominee winning that state in the presidential election.

From 1924 through 1964, Democratic presidential nominees won 68.5 percent of states with Democratic governors in office (207 of 302 states), and just 30.1 percent of states with Republican governors (83 of 226 states).

Meanwhile, Republican presidential nominees won 62.8 percent of states led by Republican governors (142 of 226 states) and just 36.7 percent of states with Democratic governors (91 of 302 states).

One obvious reason for this higher correlation was the greater frequency of straight-ticket votes for Democratic candidates in the South.

Presidential Candidate Rate of Success by Partisan Control of Governor's Office, 1924-1964

Governor
Dem
GOP
3rd
Total
% Dem
% GOP
Democrat
207
91
4
302
68.5
30.1
Republican
83
142
1
226
36.7
62.8
Other
4
0
0
4
100.0
0.0
Data compiled by Smart Politics.

But while Barack Obama is far from 'sitting pretty' heading into the 2012 presidential election cycle, the fact that Republicans will be controlling the governor's mansion in many battleground states should not make the short list of his problems.

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1 Comment


  • Since you have written before about politics and baseball, can we agree that all seasons are not the same. I’m thinking of 1961 and the Roger Maris asterisk and suggest that only 1972 and 1992 are significant. The 2012 election as well as those two elections were the first ones after the state’s completed redistricting and the Electoral College state votes adjusted. Actually, 1992 may have to have a double asterisk as that year the Ross Perot factor may have impacted Bush … 1972 may be a triple asterisk as Nixon had a blowout election. So, I don’t know if there are any true comparisons.

    Does your analysis show any different trends in states where the Governorship changed parties and the number of Electoral College votes changed versus those years when the districts were stable ?
    The idea would be that a governor may be able to affect how districts are drawn … helping his party … and thus helping his party for the Presidential contest.

    I think that 2012 could be very interesting as Ohio and Pennsylvania will probably lose at least one member of Congress … and thus at least one Electoral College vote. In those instances Kasich and Corbett could have an impact.

    Presuming that the governors will not be up for elections in 2012 again, would it be a better question regarding Presidential and Gubernatorial coattails. Have you reviewed voting patterns for how often a party wins the Governor’s race but then the opposite party wins the Electoral College vote. For example in 2008, Democrat Jay Nixon won the Missouri governor’s contest while John McCain won the Electoral College votes. The similar pattern happened in Montana and West Virginia – but with the caveat that the Democrat was re-elected but the EC went to McCain while Republican Mitch Daniels was reelected in Indiana but Obama got the EC votes. My guess would be that overwhelmingly when a party wins the governor’s contest, it also wins the EC votes --- especially when the party’s nominee is up for re-election.

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    Remains of the Data

    No Free Passes: States With 2 Major Party Candidates in Every US House Race

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