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Will Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin Provide Any Drama in 2014's Gubernatorial Races?

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Gubernatorial elections have been decided by single digits over the last four elections in just four states - three are in the Upper Midwest: Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Rhode Island

maryburke10.jpgWith just a shade over three and one-half months until Election Day, it is not yet clear how many top of the ticket races will keep political observers on the edge of their seats this November - even in the reliably competitive Upper Midwest.

Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have been accustomed to competitive gubernatorial races in recent years with each of the last four such contests in all three states decided by single digits.

However, at this point in the 2014 cycle, there appears to be only one bona fide competitive race for governor in the tri-state region - Mary Burke vs. Scott Walker in Wisconsin - but even in this contest the challenger has yet to poll ahead of the incumbent.

Iowa's race - Jack Hatch vs. Terry Branstad - hardly resembles a barnburner at this stage, with the Republican governor well-situated for a double-digit win, while the race in Minnesota has only the potential to be one to watch as the GOP braces for one of its most competitive primaries in history for the right to take on Governor Mark Dayton.

The fact that each of these three neighboring Midwestern states has routinely served up competitive gubernatorial races over the last four elections is quite unusual in recent political history.

Only one other state across the country can make that claim - Rhode Island, which has hosted governor's races decided by single digits for five consecutive cycles dating back to 1994.

In fact, only five other states have enjoyed streaks of more than one competitive gubernatorial race in a row.

Contests in Maine, Oregon, and Washington have been decided by less than 10 points in three consecutive cycles with elections in Florida and West Virginia decided by single digits during the last two.

Number of Consecutive Gubernatorial Elections Decided by Single Digits

State
Period
# Elections
Rhode Island
1994-2010
5
Iowa
1998-2010
4
Minnesota
1998-2010
4
Wisconsin
2002-2012
4
Maine
2002-2010
3
Oregon
2002-2010
3
Washington
2004-2012
3
Florida
2006-2010
2
West Virginia
2011-2012
2
Connecticut
2010
1
Illinois
2010
1
Indiana
2012
1
Massachusetts
2010
1
Montana
2012
1
New Mexico
2010
1
Ohio
2010
1
Pennsylvania
2010
1
South Carolina
2010
1
Virginia
2013
1
Table compiled by Smart Politics.

Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin are also usually considered at or near the top-tier of presidential battleground states, and it has not been common for states to be competitive in races for both executive offices.

For example, top-tier presidential swing states like Colorado, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, and Pennsylvania each have had at least two of their last four gubernatorial races decided by 11 or more points.

Overall, the last four races for governor in these six states have been decided by an average of 17.9 points. By comparison, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have had an average victory margin of just 5.7 points.

On the other side of the coin, a handful of reliably blue (Illinois, Massachusetts, Rhode Island) and red (Montana, South Carolina) states in presidential elections have served up exciting gubernatorial races in recent years - decided by single digits in at least three of the last four contests in each, with the average victory margin coming in at just 7.6 points collectively.

Average Victory Margin in Gubernatorial Elections Over Last Four Cycles By State

Rank
State
Period
MoV
1
Minnesota
1998-2010
3.0
2
Illinois
1998-2010
5.5
3
Rhode Island
1998-2010
5.7
4
Wisconsin
2002-2012
5.9
5
Washington
2000-2012
7.1
6
South Carolina
1998-2010
7.2
7
Virginia
2001-2013
7.7
8
Florida
1998-2010
7.9
9
Iowa
1998-2010
8.3
9
North Carolina
2000-2012
8.3
11
Massachusetts
1998-2010
8.8
11
Missouri
2000-2012
8.8
11
Maryland
1998-2010
8.8
14
Montana
2000-2012
10.7
15
Indiana
2000-2012
10.8
16
Georgia
1998-2010
10.9
17
Mississippi
1999-2011
11.4
18
Oregon
1998-2010
11.7
19
Alabama
1998-2010
11.9
20
Hawaii
1998-2010
12.5
21
Ohio
1998-2010
12.7
21
New Jersey
2001-2013
12.7
23
California
2002-2010
13.0
24
Maine
1998-2010
13.8
25
Michigan
1998-2010
15.2
26
Colorado
1998-2010
15.3
27
Pennsylvania
1998-2010
16.3
28
Arizona
1998-2010
16.4
29
Connecticut
1998-2010
17.0
30
Vermont
2006-2012
17.2
31
New Mexico
1998-2010
17.5
32
Oklahoma
1998-2010
17.9
32
Nevada
1998-2010
17.9
34
Arkansas
1998-2010
18.2
35
Texas
1998-2010
19.2
35
Alaska
1998-2010
19.2
37
West Virginia
2004-2012
20.2
38
Kentucky
1999-2011
21.6
39
Idaho
1998-2010
22.0
40
South Dakota
1998-2010
23.7
41
Wyoming
1998-2010
25.0
42
Delaware
2000-2012
25.2
43
Kansas
1998-2010
26.8
43
New York
1998-2010
26.8
45
New Hampshire
2006-2012
27.6
46
Tennessee
1998-2010
28.3
47
Louisiana
1999-2011
30.2
48
North Dakota
2000-2012
33.4
49
Nebraska
1998-2010
36.5
50
Utah
2000-2012
36.9
Note: Table compiled by Smart Politics.

The current four-cycle streaks in these three Upper Midwestern states are among the longest stretches of competitive gubernatorial elections in each state's history.

Minnesota

Minnesota voters brought the nation the most closely-decided race in the 2010 cycle among the 37 states holding gubernatorial elections, with Mark Dayton beating Tom Emmer by 0.4 points, and leads the nation with its last four races decided by only 3.0 points.

This four-cycle streak ties a Gopher State record for the largest number of consecutive competitive elections for governor - a feat that has happened twice before: from 1886 to 1892 and 1960 to 1970.

The gubernatorial elections of 1886, 1888, 1890, and 1892 were all swept by the GOP, but decided by an average of just 4.3 points:

· 1886: Andrew McGill won by 1.1 points over Democrat Albert Ames
· 1888: William Merriam defeated Eugene Wilson by 9.3 points
· 1890: Merriam won reelection by 1.0 point over Thomas Wilson
· 1892: Knute Nelson won the first of two terms by 5.7 points against Daniel Lawler

The most recent streak took place between 1960 and 1970, with the four contests decided by an average of 3.9 points:

· 1960: Republican Elmer Andersen defeated three-term incumbent Orville Freeman by 1.5 points
· 1962: Democrat Karl Rolvaag beat Andersen by 91 votes after a prolonged statewide recount
· 1966: Republican Harold LeVander beat Rolvaag by 5.7 points
· 1970: Democrat Wendell Anderson defeated Douglas Head by 8.5 points in an open seat race

Overall, 38 of Minnesota's 65 gubernatorial elections were decided by single digits, or 58.5 percent.

Wisconsin

At four in a row, Wisconsin is currently tied for its third longest streak of competitive gubernatorial elections in state history with the last four races decided by an average of 5.9 points in 2002 (3.7 points), 2006 (7.4 points), 2010 (5.8 points), and the recall election of 2012 (6.8 points).

Impressive, but not quite a match for the Badger State's remarkable nine-cycle streak taking place from 1954 through 1970, with Republicans winning five contests and Democrats claiming four.

Five of these races were decided by less than four points: victories by Republican Walter Kohler, Jr. in 1954 (3.1 points), Republican Vernon Thomson in 1956 (3.9 points), Democrat Gaylord Nelson in 1960 (3.2 points), Democrat John Reynolds in 1962 (1.0 points), and Republican Warren Knowles in 1964 (1.2 points).

Wisconsin also saw its gubernatorial elections decided by single-digits six times in a row from 1881 to 1892 and four times in a row from 1855 to 1861 as well as 1865 to 1871.

All signs are the Badger State will extend its streak to five in 2014, as presumptive Democratic nominee Mary Burke has been within striking distance of incumbent Scott Walker in most polls conducted within the past year.

Since statehood, 37 of 73 elections for governor have been decided by single digits, or 50.7 percent.

Iowa

In Iowa, the four-cycle streak of single-digit gubernatorial victory margins is the fifth longest in state history coming in with an average victory margin of 8.3 points in 1998 (5.8 points), 2002 (8.2 points), 2006 (9.6 points), and 2010 (9.6 points).

The Hawkeye State saw streaks of six straight competitive races from 1883 to 1893 and 1952 to 1962 and five in a row from 1846 to 1859 and 1932 to 1940.

The 2014 contest between Republican incumbent Terry Branstad and Democratic challenger Jack Hatch has not yet lived up to the billing of the state's recent electoral history.

Branstad has enjoyed double-digit or near double-digit leads in all non-partisan polls released over the past year.

Overall, 36 of 71 elections in Iowa since statehood have had margins of victory of less than 10 points, or 50.7 percent.

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