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Washington Post political reporters: Time to fix gubernatorial election analysis

by Rob Richie // Published June 7, 2009
The Washington Post has a history of some of the nation's strongest political reporting, but its 2009 analysis of the politics of upcoming gubernatorial elections has a troubling pattern. The Fix reporter Chris Cillizza and long-time stalwart Dan Balz certainly know their politics, but too often assess upcoming gubernatorial elections through the lens of  recent presidential elections. A mountain of hard numbers show how virtually irrelevant presidential elections can be for projecting results in gubernatorial elections.

Here are examples of recent Post political coverage. In  today's article on the 2009 elections for governor in Virginia and New Jersey, Balz writes that "... both states went for Barack Obama last November. But Democratic leaders expect difficult races." Later he observes "New Jersey has become a reliably Democratic state in presidential races, and Democrats hold a huge advantage in party registration, but the incumbent's problems give Republicans hope" (perhaps the same hope Republicans had in winning 1993 and 1997 gubernatorial races in the state despite those same Democratic advantages). As to Virginia , Balz writes "But it was Obama's victory last November that changed Virginia's national hue from red to purple. Nevertheless, early polls show McDonnell leading all three of his potential rivals."

On May 29th, Chris Cillizza's reviewed upcoming gubernatorial elections in detail in his always entertaining column The Fix. In picking the 10 states most likely to change hands, he regularly weaves in references to the presidential election results, such as:

-  Oklahoma: "It's hard to see the state that gave Obama his lowest percentage in the 2008 putting a Democrat in as its next governor" -- even though that's exactly what happened in 2002 and 2006

- Hawaii: Likely to go Democratic in part because the "simple fact is that Hawaii is among the most Democratic states in the country' -- as it was when Republicans won in 2002 and 2006

- On California's Democratic lean, "Whitman's willingness to spends gobs of her own money make her someone to be taken seriously even though California is a state that heavily favors Democrats at the statewide level" -- yet Republicans have held the governor's office for more than 21 of the past 26 years

- On Michigan, "Republicans desperately need to show viability in a Midwestern, manufacturing-heavy state if they want to have any chance in 2012 against President Obama, and, today, Michigan looks like their best chance" -- although a victory in a governor's race in Michigan in 2002 might be hardly more prophetic for 2004 than eight Democratic pickups in governor's races in 2001-3 in states carried by George Bush in 2004

The truth is that presidential elections are not an accurate way to assess gubernatorial elections. Although an amazingly powerful predictor of other federal races, especially open U.S. House races and future presidential elections, it's important to look at races for governor on a case by case basis.

Here's one way to look at it. Out of our 50 states 35 have had governors from more than one party this decade even as only ten states (Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Nevada New Hampshire, New Mexico , North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia) have been won by both political parties in presidential elections.

Among the states that have flipped between parties in elections for governor this decade are most of the heavily partisan states in presidential races. Consider the ten most Democratic states in the 2008 presidential election (all of which were solidly Democratic in the 2000-2008 presidential races). Five of those states have Republican governors, and only one (Delaware) has only had a Democratic governor throughout the decade. In fact, two states (Rhode Island and Connecticut) have only had 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 the single most Republican state (Wyoming) and the third most Republican state (Oklahoma). Let's get into more detail.

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) and 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, 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, 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, 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. Republican last won state in 1988, when Bush outpaced his national average in the state.

8. California (58.7%, D): A Republican governor, 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): A Democratic governor, 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.

Seven Democratic Governors in the 13 Most Strongly Republican States

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): A Democratic governor since 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): A Democratic governor since 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): A Republican governor, but Democratic governor from 1995 to 2003 even though a Democratic presidential candidate hasn't won Alaska since 1964.

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

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

9. Kentucky (61.3%, R): 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 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.

Addition on June 8: After reviewing our data, my qualifier to this analysis is that the closer one gets to more balanced partisan status, the more in fact partisan leanings in presidential races seem to have an impact -- at least at the current time. 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.

Supporting that contention, even though there are Democratic governors in 7 of the 13 most Republican states,  the next seven most Republican states all have Republican governors. Similar, on the Democratic side, there are Republican governors in five of the ten most heavily Democratic states, but Democrats hold 13 of the next 15 states in order of Democratic partisanship.

So there is a connection between presidential results and gubernatorial results but it's not quite what one would think. The "sweet spot" for Democratic gubernatorial candidates right now seems to be Democratic partisan terrain of 50% to 56%. For Republicans, it's states with 55% to 60% Republican partisanship.

Governor's Races in 2001-2003: Big Changes, Yet No Correlation to 2000 and 2004 Presidential Elections

At the federal level in 2002, Republicans had a strong mid-term, picking up several U.S. Senate and House seats. But governor's races were all over the map, with far more than half of gubernatorial elections in 2001-2003 -- 25 in all - resulting in a shift in partisan control. But 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.

And while the major parties may huff and puff about the 2009 races for governor in Virginia and New Jersey and what it might mean for the 2010 congressional elections and 2012 presidential elections, they certainly didn't predict much in 2001, when gains for Democrats in those states had no bearing on which party did better nationally in 2002 and 2004.

Presidential elections matter in making predictions. But that consistency is generally confined to the federal level. Our top political reporters should know better.

Final Statistics:

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

* Number of states won 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, Wyoming)

* 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.

****************** This analysis draws on FairVote's report Presidential Elections Inequality (2006) and our post-election analysis 2008's Shrinking Battleground.