Catch of the Day: Governors Have No Coattails

A Catch to my Bloomberg colleague Al Hunt for killing off an old political chestnut: the idea that winning statehouses will matter in the next presidential election. As he explains, it just doesn’t:

Who wins the governorship matters a lot to citizens of Florida or Wisconsin and elsewhere, affecting important issues such as taxes and Medicaid expansion. The effect on the 2016 presidential race, however, will be minimal. A case in point: In 2012, five of the most competitive battleground states were Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Wisconsin and Iowa. All had Republican governors; all five voted for Barack Obama.
This isn’t cherry-picking. Sophisticated mathematical models also show no effect.

I should say there are indirect ways governors in swing states might have some effect. To the extent Republicans can win unified control of a state government, they’re likely to make it harder to vote in general, including the use of “targeted inconvenience” tactics, to depress the vote for Democrats. When Democrats win control of a state, they’re likely to make voting easier in general, especially for marginal voters (who tend to prefer Democrats). And as we saw in Florida in the 2000 presidential race, in extremely close recounts, it’s a serious edge to have partisan control of state government.

But in general it doesn’t matter, partly because governors don’t care much. It used to be that most of them were elected every two years, or their four-year cycles coincided with presidential elections. Over time, fewer and fewer gubernatorial elections are aligned that way. Given that midterm elections are almost always bad for the party in the White House, electoral incentives may even run the opposite way. A Democratic governor in a Republican-leaning state would probably be better off with a Republican president during a re-election bid.

So even if governors controlled resources that were important in presidential elections, they probably wouldn’t be all that eager to deploy them. And they don’t have those resources anyway. We’re long past the days when formal state parties were important electoral machines (at least in some places) and were controlled by governors (at least some of the time). Presidents and parties run nationwide campaigns, and have access to both national and local resources. Governors don’t have much to do with that.

All in all, what happens at the statehouse level (and, for that matter, in Congress) on Tuesday — as important as it is — doesn’t tell us anything about White House 2016.

Nice catch!

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.