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The Political Significance of Elections for Governor: Pundits often get it wrong

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As gubernatorial campaigns in Virginia and New Jersey come to a close tomorrow , many of our savviest politicos are espousing the conventional wisdom that the results will serve as clues to national trends in 2010 and 2012. But the hard numbers show that recent votes for governor do not predict outcomes in presidential contests and vice versa. Most of our heavily blue and red states in presidential races are in fact represented by governors from the minority party.

Unlike congressional races, which today are strongly connected to the presidential vote, gubernatorial elections must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. Voter care far more about the individual candidates, their state's economic conditions and their confidence in incumbent's record than their voter registration.

In fact, while one party's presidential candidates have carried 40 of our nation's 50 states in all three elections during this decade, during that same decade only 15 states have elected candidates of the same party in gubernatorial elections - and those 15 states are generally not the classic swing states of the presidential contests.

Of the ten most Democratic states in the 2008 presidential election, for example, all have been comfortably Democratic in presidential races in 2000, 2004 and 2008. But five of these states have Republican governors - including Hawaii, 2008's very bluest state. Among these states, only Delaware has 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, the 13 most heavily Republican states in the 2008 presidential election were all won by Republican presidential candidates in 2000-2008, but seven have Democratic governors - including Wyoming and Oklahoma, the first and third reddest states in the union in 2008.

Modern physics provides a clue to how this may happen. 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, results in states can be far more erratic and unpredictable.

In 2002, for example, Republicans picked up several U.S. Senate and House seats. But gubernatorial races were all over the map. More than half of all gubernatorial elections in 2001 to 2003 resulted in a shift in partisan control. But of those 25 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 of 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 and 2012, they certainly didn't predict much in 2001. A Democratic sweep of those states in 2001 didn't stop Republicans from making gains in the 2002 midterms and Bush winning re-election in 2004.

Looking deeper into the numbers provides one clue about what may be going on. The closer one gets to more balanced partisan status, the more partisan leanings in presidential races actually do seem to have an impact. Although the 13 most Republican states in presidential races have mostly Democratic governors, the next seven most Republican states all have Republican governors. Similarly, Republican governors serve in five of the ten most heavily Democratic states, but Democrats hold 13 of the next 15 states in order of Democratic partisanship.

The "sweet spot" for Democratic gubernatorial candidates 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. It may be that in more heavily partisan states, voters have a greater desire to check the power 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. Or perhaps the minority parties in the most partisan states are simply desperate enough to nominate candidates who hold many of the views of the majority party.

Given that politics really does seem to be local in governor's races, the elections tomorrow in New Jersey and Virginia will tell us one thing: who will be the next governor of those states. The 2010 and 2012 elections will have to wait.

For more numbers, see FairVote's June 2010 innovative analysis .