This fall, in a strange aligning of the electoral stars, Republicans will defend governorships in several key presidential swing states: Florida, Iowa, Nevada and Ohio. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin could also be added to that list, which expands the proverbial map a little bit more.
One might think that, if the GOP manages to hold onto those seats, they’d be setting themselves up to take back the White House in 2016. In conversations TPM had with a few independent strategists, that conventional wisdom was the norm. It feels like it makes sense: Why wouldn’t holding the state’s highest office help? Especially if the governor is popular, he can show up at campaign events with the presidential candidate and mobilize the ground game.
Flip five of those six states in the GOP’s favor on the 2012 map, and we’d currently be in the 15th month of the Mitt Romney administration. So Republican wins in 2014 should therefore give the party a better chance of seizing the White House two years later, right?
But it doesn’t. In fact, according to the same kind of political analysis that shattered the horse-race perception of the 2012 presidential race, the opposite is true: GOP gubernatorial wins this year would actually hurt the party’s chances of reclaiming the presidency in 2016.
Three Columbia and Harvard University professors, often cited by the now-famous Monkey Cage blog, explored this question in September 2012. They concluded that the governor’s party loses three percentage points in presidential elections. Especially in the two biggest swing-state prizes, Florida and Ohio, the lost votes could mean the difference between winning and losing the state.
The research “shows that the common belief that governors help their presidential ticket is false,” the authors wrote. They argued that the study’s methodology had controlled for other factors, indicating direct causation, and the trend proved persistent from 1880 to 2008.
“Usually, you’re better off losing rather than winning the governorship,” Robert Erikson, a political scientist at Columbia University and one of the authors, told TPM. To demonstrate: President Barack Obama won each of these states in the 2012 election after the GOP triumphed in the 2010 gubernatorial races.
Why is that? The professors didn’t say definitively, but they took several educated guesses in their analysis. The most obvious one was the same widely accepted feature of the American political psyche that suggests Republicans have an advantage in the upcoming 2014 midterms simply because Obama is a Democrat: U.S. voters want ideological balance.
This is, of course, the kind of political phenomenon that’s impossible for the parties to act upon. Nobody is going to intentionally lose a governor’s race with the hope it will pay off in a presidential election, especially when many important policy decisions are being made at the state level.
But if things don’t go well for Democrats in November, maybe keeping 2016 in the back of their mind will make the losses a little easier to bear. Which would then make the moral of the story: Hillary Clinton should be rooting for Rick Scott, Terry Branstad, Brian Sandoval and John Kasich to keep their seats this fall.
“That would be their solace,” Erikson said. “They can say, ‘Well, we’ll get ’em next time.'”