With the U.S. Congress suffering from single-digit job approval ratings, governors are likely to be in vogue as potential presidential candidates in 2016. Two swing state governors, John Kasich from Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, are believed to be seriously considering seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Both men are currently seeking re-election as governor and both are in tight races. Running for re-election with job approval ratings hovering around 50 percent can be a very risky electoral situation.
The worst-case scenario for both governors would be to lose their re-election bids. If this happens, their presidential prospects in 2016 are essentially over. It would be hard for Kasich or Walker to justify to potential Republican benefactors and voters that they can win swing states in the general election when they can't even win re-election as governor.
In 2006, many in the Republican High Command were promoting U.S. Senator George Allen (R-VA) as a presidential candidate in 2008. Many in the GOP establishment were ready to consolidate their support behind him. Had Allan not sought re-election to the U.S. Senate, he may very well have garnered the GOP presidential nomination in 2008. However, during his re-election race, Allan faltered. While campaigning in Breaks, Virginia, Allan called a "tracker" from the campaign of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jim Webb a "Macacca" (a racial slur against South Asian Indians). That was the precipitating event which deflated his campaign. He lost re-election and his presidential dreams died.
The second worst-case scenario for Kasich and Walker is that they go through a grueling re-election campaign and are forced (out of political necessity) to promise to serve out their full terms.
This, however, would not necessarily be the end of their presidential chances. In 1990, Bill Clinton chose to seek a fourth-term as Governor of Arkansas. He was relatively popular in the state, but there was a yearning for new leadership. Clinton had flirted with a presidential run in 1987, and was spending an inordinate amount of time out of the state. Many Arkansans questioned if it was time for new leadership. Two formidable candidates challenged Clinton in the Democratic primary, former U.S. Representative Jim Guy Tucker (D-AR) and philanthropist Tom McRae. Tucker eventually dropped out of the race, seeking instead the office of Arkansas Lieutenant Governor. McCray tried to tether Clinton with long-time members of the State Legislature. McCray announced his campaign while holding a broom, threatening to sweep away the current state government to make room for all new people. McCray ran a formidable campaign and held Clinton to just 55.3 percent of the vote in the primary.
In the general election, Clinton faced another formidable foe, Arkansas businessman Sheffield Nelson. Nelson saw an exponential rise in the polls, in part by airing an effective advertisement where Clinton, in a State of the State Address exclaims: "Raise and spend." A voice then asks: "What did Bill Clinton do to us in 1983?" Clinton says, "Raise and spend. And in 1987?" Clinton says "Raise and spend." The Clinton damage-control team went into high gear, producing an advertisement where Clinton proclaims:
Here's what I actually said to the legislature: 'Unlike our friends in Washington, we can't write a check on an account that is overdrawn. Either we raise and spend or we don't spend.' All I was doing was fighting for a balanced budget. But Nelson went to work and cut out the words 'raise and spend' from my speech to give you the wrong impression.
With that, Clinton took back the lead and won re-election. In addition, during that race Clinton was forced to promise voters he would serve out his full term as governor. The next year, after barnstorming the state, asking constituents permission to get out of that pledge, Clinton announced his presidential bid.
Clinton would likely have been in a more electorally advantageous position to run for president in 1992 had he simply not sought re-election for governor, and focused his energies instead on mounting a presidential campaign. However, Clinton proved that it is possible to break an electoral promise to serve out one's term as governor and still make a successful run for the presidency.
Perhaps the best-case scenario would be if Kasich and Walker won re-election in a landslide, securing the votes of Democrats and Independents alike. In 1998, George W. Bush, running for re-election as Governor of Texas, and with an eye on the presidency in 2000, went full-throttle to win as many votes as possible. He was re-elected with 68.2 percent of the vote, securing 27 percent of the African-American vote and 49 percent of the Hispanic vote. Bush was able to parlay this win into front-runner status in his bid for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2000.
Similarly, in 2006, Hillary Clinton, eyeing a presidential run in 2008, won re-election as U.S. Senator in New York, spending $36 million to secure as many votes as possible, pocketing 67 percent of the vote and winning 62 of the state's 66 counties. Like Bush, she would use her landslide victory as an exhibition of her electoral bone fides to Democratic Presidential Primary voters in 2008.
There is one other possible scenario that Kasich and Walker might face should they be re-elected. Their states could experience an economic downturn, forcing them to return to their states to deal with the problem. If this should happen, their problems would be compounded by their presidential opponents, who would blame them for mismanaging their states. There is a precedent for such a scenario. In 1986, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis was enjoying stratospheric job approval rating. He won an impressive 65.15 percent of the vote. During the Presidential campaign, Dukakis touted "The Massachusetts Miracle." Under his stewardship, the state, after losing much of its manufacturing base, enjoyed a high-technology boom and the unemployment level shrunk to below three percent.
However, during the Presidential campaign, the Massachusetts economy began to slow down and tax revenues came in below projections. Dukakis was forced to engage in "root canal economics" by signing legislation raising taxes and cutting human service jobs, and changing the state's pension system. Dukakis' Republican opponent, Vice President George H.W. Bush, exploited the Massachusetts economic decline, exclaiming: "Right now, the state is approaching a fiscal fiasco that might be best described as a budgetary Three Mile Island. -- a budgetary meltdown." Dukakis, who held a 17-point lead in the polls that summer, lost the election by 10 points.
There is one other path which Kasich and Walker have not yet chosen to take. That alternative is not to seek re-election and instead spend the year campaigning for Republican candidates for office around the country, collecting political chits and auditioning their stump speech for the 2016 Presidential race. In 2006, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, faced with low job approval ratings and the prospect of losing re-election (likely ending his Presidential prospects), announced he would not seek re-election. Being liberated from a difficult re-election campaign, Romney had the freedom to spend 212 days out of the state in 2006, mostly campaigning for Republican Gubernatorial candidates.
Absent the stratospheric job approval ratings of George W. Bush in 1998 and Hillary Clinton in 2006, Kasich and Walker are more likely to face a similar scenario to Bill Clinton in 1990. They will have to go full-throttle to win re-election and maintain their political viability. If they lose re-election, they will be in the same boat as George Allen in 2006, seeing their presidential prospects vanish. If they win re-election, they can only hope the economic balloon in their states does not burst during their presidential candidacy, as happened to Dukakis in 1988. At any rate, neither governor is taking the easy way out by foregoing a re-election bid and spending time laying the political spadework for a Presidential run, as Romney did in 2006.