No Reverse Coattails

The University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics site crosses some t’s and dots some i’s with respect to an argument that should have been over quite some time ago: as the 2012 results confirm, there’s not much evidence that holding a governorship gives a party an advantage in carrying a state in presidential elections.

After the Republican tsunami two years ago, numerous broadcast media anchors and analysts stated on air that the GOP gubernatorial pick-ups in several key battleground states would pose a problem for Barack Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012.

Purple states such as Florida, Iowa, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin all saw Republicans pick-up open seats or knock off Democratic or independent incumbents.

Media anchors, hosts, and analysts such as John King (CNN), Bret Baier (FOX), Joe Trippi (FOX), Gloria Borger (CNN), and Kirsten Powers (FOX) all remarked at the advantage Republicans would receive in the 2012 presidential race as a result of these gubernatorial victories, and the barriers it would place for an Obama reelection victory.

Smart Politics issued a study that challenged these statements and, 24 months before the 2012 election, projected that Barack Obama’s reelection fate in no way hinged on which party controlled the governor’s mansion in these battleground states.

And now the triumphant evidence:

[W]hile the Republican gubernatorial (and state legislative) success stories during the 2010 election cycle may have enabled the GOP to craft more favorable district lines for 2012 legislative races, the impact on which presidential nominee carried these swing states was, once again, non-existent.

Obama did not lose any of the battleground states in which Democrats fell flat in gubernatorial races two years ago.

In fact, almost all of the closest races in the country saw a presidential nominee carry a state with a governor in office from the opposite party – including all seven key GOP gubernatorial pickups in 2010.

Of the 16 states decided by single digits in 2012, 11 voted for the presidential nominee of a party other than its sitting governor, including each of the five states with the narrowest margin of victory.

Florida (#1), Ohio (#2), Virginia (#4), Pennsylvania (#5), Iowa (#8), Nevada (#9), Wisconsin (#10), Michigan (#14), and New Mexico (#16) were all states with Republican governors carried by Barack Obama by single digits.

Meanwhile, North Carolina (#3) and Missouri (#14) have Democratic governors and voted for Mitt Romney.

The only competitive contests in which the state voted for a presidential nominee of the same party as its governor were Colorado (#6), New Hampshire (#7), Minnesota (#11), Georgia (#12), and Arizona (#13).

Overall, across the 600 statewide presidential contests conducted during the 12 election cycles since 1968, states have now voted for a presidential candidate from a different political party than its reigning governor 301 times, or 50.2 percent.

Regardless of what “numerous broadcast media anchors and analysts stated on air,” no one should have seriously maintained the “reverse coattails” hypothesis. Presidential campaigns no longer depend in any significant way on gubernatorial prestige or the personal political organizations of governors. More importantly, since a big majority of governors are elected in midterm elections, the ever-increasing gap between the partisan leanings of presidential and midterm electorates makes midterm results poor predictors of presidential results (this is probably why the “reverse coattail effect” is now particularly non-existent).

Now it’s true that the 2010 state-level victories put Republicans in a position to try to tilt the 2012 elections via voter suppression efforts designed to make the presidential electorate more like the midterm electorate. But these efforts largely failed, especially in the battleground states.

There are a lot of good and important reasons for both parties to want to win governorships (and for that matter, control of state legislatures). Influencing the outcome of presidential elections just isn’t one of them.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.