Plurality Governors

Going into November 4, there had been a lot of talk about a particular gubernatorial election “going into overtime” due to atavistic majority-vote requirement. That was in Georgia, where incumbent Republican Nathan Deal and Democratic challenger Jason Carter were locked in a close race in a state where Libertarians were regularly getting a few points in statewide contests. But as it turned out, Deal got 52% of the vote and avoided a runoff. Meanwhile, in Vermont, a state where the legislature elects governors when no candidate wins a majority, Gov. Peter Shumlin fell unexpectedly short of a majority, which was no big deal since the legislature is controlled by his fellow Democrats.

But under different rules, we could have had a lot of runoffs in 2014. At the University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics site, Eric Ostermeier notes that we’re reaching a modern plateau for gubernatorial candidates winning without majorities:

Plurality winners in the 2014 cycle are independent Bill Walker of Alaska (48.1 percent), Democrats John Hickenlooper of Colorado (49.3 percent), David Ige of Hawaii (49.5 percent), John Kitzhaber of Oregon (48.9 percent), Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island (40.7 percent), and Peter Shumlin of Vermont (46.4 percent), and Republicans Rick Scott of Florida (48.1 percent), Sam Brownback of Kansas (49.9 percent), Paul LePage of Maine (48.2 percent), and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts (48.4 percent).

If that sounds like a lot – it is.

For it’s just the third time in the last century that the number of governors elected with a plurality of the vote has reached double digits – all since 2002.

Some of this phenomenon is attributable to the small but steady growth in independent or minor-party candidacies. It’s no mistake that the period with even higher plurality governorships was in the 1910s when the Progressive “revolt” split the GOP. But in some cases, it’s just a proliferation of really close races. The relatively low number of gubernatorial incumbents losing in 2014 should not obscure the fact that a lot of them were in mortal peril.

Speaking of which: at the Smart Politics post I’m citing here, there’s an uncaptioned photo right at the top. My first reaction was: Damn, Professor Ostenmaier is one scary-looking dude! Then I realized it was a photo of Rick Scott. What a relief.

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.