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New Jersey, Virginia and other States of Flux

Released June 11, 2009

A FairVote Innovative Analysis by Rob Richie and Paul Fidalgo

Facts in Focus:

  • Number of states won only by one party in all presidential races since 1996: 40. Number of states won only by one party in gubernatorial races in that period: 11.*

  • Number of 13 most Republican and 10 most Democratic states (based on presidential elections) won by that state’s “minority party” in presidential races, 2000-2008: Zero. Number of those 23 states currently with governors from the minority party: 12.

  • Number of states won only by one party in gubernatorial races since 1978: 1 (South Dakota). Number of states won only by one party’s candidates for president since 1964: 9 (all Republican - Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming).

In a Nutshell

The field is set for highly competitive gubernatorial elections this fall in Virginia and New Jersey. In handicapping the electoral prospects of the gubernatorial candidates, some of our smartest politicos are assuming that a state’s presidential results are a major indicator of who will lord over the statehouse. But looking at governors’ races through a presidential lens leads one into some dizzying territory where blue is red, red is blue, and the most conventional of wisdom dissolves in the face of indisputable data. The hard numbers show that presidential elections can be close to irrelevant when it comes to projecting results in gubernatorial elections. Here, for once, all politics really is local.

Our Analysis

Governorships are like the presidency in many ways: an executive who oversees a bevy of departments and agencies, wrangles legislators to enact an agenda, and serves as a ceremonial head of state at countless public functions. Every four years (except for New Hampshire and Vermont, the last holdouts to the post-World War II trend away from two-year terms), a state’s candidates for governor gear up to win the hearts and minds of the electorate, including appeals to the innate partisan inclinations of the people they hope to serve. It’s only natural to assume that a state’s voters will vote for governor similarly to how they just voted for president. Such consistency indeed is the norm these days in congressional races, which helps explain the power of redistricting under winner-take-all rules.

What’s surprising is that the numbers don’t bear this assumption out in electing governors – not at all! It turns out that presidential elections are an inadequate way to assess upcoming gubernatorial elections and gubernatorial races are an inadequate way to gauge upcoming presidential races. Races for governor must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis – looking at how voters respond to individual candidates, their state’s economic conditions and their confidence in the majority party.

Here’s one way to look at it. One party’s presidential candidates have carried 40 states in all three elections during this decade, but over the same period only 15 states have been similarly exclusive to one party in gubernatorial elections. What’s more, those party-straddling states in governor’s races are often not the classic swing states of the presidential contests. States flipping between parties in gubernatorial elections this decade include most of the heavily partisan states in presidential races.

Of the ten most Democratic states in the 2008 presidential election (all of which were solidly blue in the 2000-2008 presidential races), five have Republican governors – including Hawaii, 2008’s very bluest state. Only one state (Delaware) has only had a Democratic governor throughout the decade, while two of these heavily Democratic states (Rhode Island and Connecticut) have only elected Republican governors since the mid-1990s.

Meanwhile, of the 13 most heavily Republican states in the 2008 presidential election (all won by Republican presidential candidates in 2000-2008), seven have Democratic governors – including Wyoming and Oklahoma, the first and third reddest states in the union. (For a detailed state-by-state breakdown see the end of this piece, and you can click here to download the spreadsheet with the raw data.)

What’s going on here? Are the voters forgetting what party they usually vote for?

Political Landslides versus Quantum Weirdness

Modern physics tells us that what seems to be calm, empty space is at the quantum scale full of chaos and indeterminacy. Just so in politics, for even during cycles in which it seems that at the federal level one party is running away with the show, at the state level things can be far more erratic and unpredictable. In 2002, for example, Republicans had a very strong mid-term, picking up several U.S. Senate and House seats. But governors’ races were all over the map (literally and figuratively), with far more than half of gubernatorial elections in 2001-2003 — 25 in all – resulting in a shift in partisan control. Of those partisan shifts, only 12 went to a candidate of the same party as the presidential candidate who carried the state in 2000. Flipping a coin would be a better method prediction.

Similarly, while the partisan spinmeisters may huff and puff about what the 2009 races for governor in Virginia and New Jersey might mean for the 2010 congressional elections and 2012 presidential elections, they certainly didn’t predict much in 2001. Gains for Democrats in those states had no bearing on which party did better nationally in 2002 and 2004.

Here’s one caveat to our analysis. The closer one gets to more balanced partisan status, the more partisan leanings in presidential races actually do seem to have an impact. Most of the 13 most Republican states in presidential races have Democratic governors, but the next seven most Republican states all have Republican governors. Similarly, on the Democratic side, Republican governors serve in five of the ten most heavily Democratic states, but Democrats hold 13 of the 15 states in order of Democratic partisanship.

The “sweet spot” for Democratic gubernatorial candidates right now seems to be Democratic partisan terrain of 50% to 56% -- not higher, as one might assume. For Republicans, it’s states with 55% to 60% Republican partisanship. Perhaps in the more heavily partisan states, voters have a greater desire to put a brake on the majority party — to make sure that a centrist Democrat in a heavily red state or a centrist Republican in a heavily blue state can check potential excesses of the majority party. Certainly Americans’ distrust of unfettered power and belief in the value of checks and balances runs deep in our traditions and might influence voter behavior. Perhaps the minority parties in these states are simply desperate enough to nominate candidates who hold many of the views of the majority party.

It’s easy to look at a very, shall we say, elephantine state and jump to the conclusion that the gubernatorial candidate riding in on the donkey has no shot, and vice-versa. But when politics is local, a homegrown Republican may have an appeal to a state that goes overwhelmingly for the nationally-minded Democratic presidential nominee. Whatever the reasoning behind voters’ refusal to stick with one team when there’s a change in venue, the numbers tell us that the political tapestry is woven with far more subtlety than is often credited.

A Notable Aside: What this means for electing presidents

Understanding this gubernatorial-presidential contrast only makes all the more stark the anachronistic and archaic way we elect the president. The Electoral College is incapable of honoring our political tapestry, instead treating the states like a set of monochromatic tiles. Each state contains within it voters who, at the state level at least, have the opportunity to eschew party labels and express themselves independently – and individually – because each vote is literally valued equally. The Electoral College, however, sees to it that some voters are more valued than others depending on accidents of geography, and entire states are checked off as red or blue regardless of the winners’ margins of victory. Direct election of the president by national popular vote would best reflect the various shades and hues within the democratic prism, ending the red state-blue state divide, and honoring the one and only electoral unit that should hold any sway: the individual American voter.
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This analysis draws on FairVote’s 2006 report Presidential Elections Inequality (2009 edition coming soon) and our post-election analysis 2008’s Shrinking Battleground.
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In other news

This week there is a fascinating development happening across the pond directly related to FairVote’s reform agenda. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has proposed a push for significant electoral reforms, which is said by analysts to include forms of instant runoff voting (known as “alternative vote” in the UK) and proportional voting to elect Members of Parliament. Home secretary Alan Johnson has already announced his support for a national referendum on “alternative vote plus” and the debate has caught fire within British politics. Check out FairVote’s website to learn more about instant runoff voting (IRV) and proportional voting, and see a recent FairVote blog post on earlier UK developments here.

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The 10 Most Democratic Presidential States: Five GOP Governors, including the Top Three

Following are the ten most Democratic states in order of partisanship, with states’ Democratic partisanship in presidential races (which represents the difference between the national popular vote results in 2008 and the results in that state) contrasted with what’s been going on in gubernatorial elections.

1. Hawaii (69.5% Democratic): Republican governor first elected in 2002 even though a Republican presidential candidate hasn’t won the state since the Reagan landslide in 1984.

2. Vermont (64.5% D): Republican governor first elected in 2002 even though a Republican presidential candidate hasn’t won the state since 1988.

3. Rhode Island (61.0% D): Republican governors since 1994 elections even though a Republican presidential candidate hasn’t won the state since 1984.

4. New York (59.8% D): Democratic governor currently, but a Republican governor from 1995 to 2007 even though a Republican presidential candidate hasn’t won the state since 1984.

5. Massachusetts (59.6% D): Democratic governor currently, but Republican governors from 1991 to 2007 even though last carried by a Republican presidential candidate in 1984.

6. Illinois (59.2%, D): Democratic governor currently, but Republican governors from 1977 to 2003 even though a Republican presidential candidate hasn’t carried the state since 1988.

7. Delaware (58.9%, D): Democratic governors since 1993. A Republican last won the state in 1988, when Bush outpaced his national average in the state.

8. California (58.7%, D): Republican governor currently, as has been the case in all but four years and ten months since 1983 even though a Republican presidential candidate hasn’t carried the state since 1988.

9. Maryland (58.5%, D): Democratic governor currently, but a Republican governor from 2003-2007. A Republican presidential candidate hasn’t won Maryland since 1988.

10. Connecticut (57.7%, D): Only Republican governors since 1995 even though a Republican presidential candidate hasn’t won the state since 1988.

The 13 Most Republican Presidential States: Seven Democratic Governors

Here’s a rundown of the 13 most Republican states in the 2008 presidential election and a review of their governors.

1. Wyoming (69.4% Republican): Democratic governor since the 2002 election even though a Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t carried Wyoming since Lyndon Johnson’s landslide in 1964.

2. Utah (68.8% R): Republican governors since 1984. A Democrat presidential candidate hasn’t won Utah since 1964.

3. Oklahoma (67.5% R): Democratic governor since the 2002 election even though a Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t carried the state since 1964.

4. Idaho (65.8% R): Republican governors since 1994 elections. A Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t won Idaho since 1964.

5. Alaska (65.7% R): Republican governor currently, but had a Democratic governor from 1995 to 2003 even though a Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t won Alaska since 1964.

6. Alabama (63.9%, R): Republican governor since the 2002 elections, but previously had a Democratic governor in a state not carried by a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976.

7. Arkansas (63.1%, R): Democratic governor since the 2006 elections in a state last won by a Democratic presidential candidate in 1996.

8. Louisiana (62.5%, R): Republican governor since 2007 elections, but previously had a Democratic governor in a state last won by a Democratic presidential candidate in 1996.

9. Kentucky (61.3%, R): Currently a Democratic governor in a state that has changed parties twice this decade in a state last won by a Democratic presidential candidate in 1996.

10. Nebraska (61.2%, R): Republican governors since 1998 election in a state last carried by a Democratic presidential candidate in 1964.

11. Kansas (60.8%, R): Democratic governors since the 2002 elections in a state last carried by a Democratic presidential candidate in 1964.

12. Tennessee (60.7%, R): Democratic governor since 2002 elections in a state last won by a Democratic presidential candidate in 1996.

13. West Virginia (60.0%, R): Democratic governors since 2000 election in a state last carried by a Democratic presidential candidate in 1996.
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* Seven states have had governors from only one party since 1993: Delaware, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Washington. Five are among the nine states that only hold gubernatorial elections in higher turnout presidential elections years. Just two are among the 41 states that hold elections in lower turnout years.

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Previous editions of Innovative Analysis can be found here.
Contact: Paul Fidalgo, communications director: paul(at)fairvote.org, (301) 270-4616