Woe, To Be a Governor
Back in July, and using the 2009 elections as the immediate backdrop, I suggested that the greatest level of volatility in the coming election cycles would be in the gubernatorial races.
The basic thesis was that the current economic and political climate had essentially put the state's chief executives in the position of making few popular choices. The expectation was that this would transcend incumbency--even in the myriad of open seat races, the change narrative would be an enticing one.
It is now more than four months later, and the 2009 election cycle has come and gone. In the interim, little has changed to dispel the sense that the gubernatorial elections are going to be the site of the greatest turmoil.
Since then, we have had two electoral results that would seem to confirm that incumbency in the state executive's office comes with peril in this climate. The "shake up" (insert name of state capital here) meme is an attractive one, and certainly played a part in the victories of Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell (especially Christie, who was swimming upstream against the natural political tendencies of his state, plus his own campaign missteps).
While most of the traditional media (including a particularly poor analysis from the Los Angeles Times) wanted to make those elections about ascendant Republicanism, there is pretty solid evidence from the exit polling in New Jersey to suggest that an anti-incumbent mood was more prevalent than an anti-Democratic mood.
President Obama, among the electorate that voted in the Garden State this month, had a 57% approval rating. Given the partisan breakdown of the electorate (41% Democratic, 31% Republican, and 28% Independent), and a basic assumption (90% of Democrats approve of Obama, and 90% of Republicans disapprove), we find that Barack Obama's approval rating among New Jersey Independents would have been in the neighborhood of 62%.
And that segment of the New Jersey electorate went to Chris Christie by 30 points (60-30-9). In other words, there was a sizeable contingent of voters who approved of President Obama's job performance who nonetheless cast their ballots for Christie.
There is also an additional four months of polling data to reflect upon. This data also speaks to the antipathy at the state level towards the party in power.
It is rare, in the polling that is available right now (and here are a pair of excellent resources), to find an incumbent who is in comfortable position for next year's election cycle, when the majority of the nation's governorships will be up for grabs.
Indeed, a cursory glance across the nation finds just three governors who lead by ten points or more in the most recent polls released in their state. Interestingly, two of the three are Democrats (Mike Beebe of Arkansas and, extraordinarily, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts). The lone Republican is Texas Governor Rick Perry, and even in an unspectacular field he leads the leading Democratic candidate by just eleven points. Utah's newly-minted Republican Governor Gary Herbert, who just took office in August, also polled well, though the poll involving his candidacy was based on his re-elect numbers as opposed to an actual trial heat with an opponent.