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Do governors face an anti-incumbent wave?

October 22nd, 2014, 12:05am by Sam Wang

TNR essay:
In my new essay in The New Republic, I analyze gubernatorial races. The bottom line: there are lots of extremely close races, mostly involving embattled Republican incumbents. These difficulties for the GOP are a lot like what Democratic Senate candidates are experiencing: the need to defend gains made in a previous wave election.

At this point, the median outcome is a net gain for Democrats of one governorship. This does not fit with the idea of a Republican wave. Read on!

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Tags: 2014 Election

39 Comments so far ↓

  • Olav Grinde

    That graphic is a thing of beauty!
    Worthy of contemplation.

  • Billy

    Side question: what did you use to generate that graph?

  • Canadian fan

    A really first rate article, Sam – balanced and clear. I spent a lot of time looking at the graph – it enables the viewer to get a real bird’s-eye view. It’s clear and eye-catching. The article gives not only an informative over-view of the gubernatorial races, but gives more weight to the growing consensus that this is not a wave year.

  • J

    It was an extremely good article by Professor Wang and it confirms that the gubernatorial elections this year – despite all this talk of a GOP wave this cycle – tell another story altogether. There seems to be a serious case of doublethink going on in the media: claiming a GOP wave, acknowledging Democratic gubernatorial gains, while ignoring the correlation between the two.

    I would be inclined to say at this point the Democrats will lose 1 governorship (Arkansas), defend the others, gain at least 5 (Florida, Maine, Kansas, Wisconsin, and Alaska); and at a stretch possibly 6 or 7 (Georgia, and/or Arizona, Michigan). I base this upon Democratic GOTV efforts, a heavy probability of pollster underestimating Democratic margins, and the numbers provided in Professor Wang’s map of the races.

    On a side note, (I asked this in another thread) I was wondering what the correlation Gubernatorial and Senate elections have on each other? Is it possible for a popular Senator’s coattails to lift up an endangered Governor on the ballot in a similar manner to the presidential coattail effect and vice versa? I ask as in Kansas, it seems that Governor Brownback and Senator Roberts (in addition to their own negative qualities) are dragging each other with their mutual unpopularity. Or in Illinois, where Senator Durbin is guaranteed reelection, compared to the unpopular and still extremely vulnerable Governor Quinn. Thanks in advance.

    • J

      An amendment to my original comment. I forgot to mention the easiest Democratic governorship pick up this year: Pennsylvania.

    • Insidious Pall

      I can’t speak on the lot, but in Michigan it has been clear since 2010 that Snyder would not attain the same margin of victory in his second run. He was elected after term-limited Granholm left. The real surprise is not that he will get less than 2010, but that he is still likely to win. Dems have had 4 long years to galvanize the electorate against him but are ostensibly behind in that effort. Part of the reason for that is Michigan’s turn around. The perception is that Snyder policies have been good for the state, and independents are supporting the guv.

    • J

      Well, I wasn’t too sure about Michigan being a Democratic pickup, but that your explanation about the current state of the State is appreciated Insidious Pall, thanks. I also agree that it’s surprising Michigan Democrats haven’t organized in a similar fashion to what the Massachusetts Democrats did following Coakley’s loss to Brown in 2010: spending the intervening years working towards getting the seat back, which as we know was a success as Elizabeth Warren is now a sitting Senator. It will be interesting to see how close the election ends up being.

  • Savanna

    You know as dysfunctional as the federal system is, it is a good thing to see the possibility of some republican governorships moving to democratic hands. There has been a lot of policy propagated that has had unpleasant consequences that can be mitigated or overturned with democratic governorships. I am thinking about places like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and Florida where republican governors have refused to extend Medicaid and have tried and succeeded to put into place restrictive voting policy and refused to increase the minimum wage or equalize the wage for women. With democrats in place in the statehouse, some of this tide can be stemmed or reversed.
    I gotta say though, having seen a report on what’s going on in the Massachusetts race for governor, I worry that Martha Coakley has an unfortunate skill at wrenching loss from the jaws of success which is troubling.

    • Sam Wang

      Yes, Coakley has a talent for bringing down the average for Democrats.

    • Steve

      MA resident here. Charlie Baker does not fit anyone’s definition of a Tea Partier, and he’s certainly no Mitt Romney. In most other states he’d be a center-right Democrat.

    • Edward G. Talbot

      As a MA resident also, I’m in agreement. Coakley’s positions on the issues are fine, but man she is really horrible at running. She either sounds tepid or defensive a lot of the time.

      I don’t know if it’s true that he’d be a center-right Democrat in many states, though. He’s decent on social issues, but economically he’s more like a Perdue. Most center-right Democrats around the country are more populist than he is.

    • Brian

      A Baker victory over Coakley would be a blessing for Bay State Dems who might finally be able to quit themselves of the taint of Fells Acres.

  • Olav Grinde

    …Republican governors have refused to extend Medicaid and have tried and succeeded to put into place restrictive voting policy…

    A good (or bad) Secretary of State has a huge influence on the state’s voting rights policy – or at least the implementation of it.

    Do SoS election follow the gubernatorial cycles?

    Dr Wang, I don’t suppose anyone is polling the SoS races?

    For instance, I read a number of reports that Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s reelection is very much in doubt after he refused to remove Taylor from the ballot.

  • Sira

    Alaska 2014 should either be colored blue or if it is green, it should read “I+6%”

  • margaret simmons

    Have you taken into account the (possible) effect of first-time voters that the polls don’t see? Three of us called over 200 new voters in our area last night to remind them to vote (almost all said they had/would vote). Democrats seem to have a very robust ground game (at least in Colorado).

  • JayBoy2k

    The issue of “Wave” election is pretty much settled for the House and Governorships. It does not exist. But that does not address the question of whether we have a wave election for the Senate and whether that wave is merely anti -incumbent for purple States.
    There are 3 D open seats that are switching to Rs, and another 3 open seats (2D and 1R) that are very tight races.
    Looking at only those races closer than 5% points, we have 8 Incumbents (6Ds, and 2 Rs) who could easily lose.

    When was the last election when the possibility of 8 Senate incumbents losing was not remote (<1%) ?

    When was the last election when 1 party had a outside chance to flip 8 or more Senate Seats?

    Possibly the 1980 Election, although I may be incorrect. I do not know what would be the definition of a Senate wave might be (not one ever seems to define it crisply), but 34 years is a very long time.

    • Liberty Raider

      Gubernatorial elections still have strong local political issues that don’t bear on the national mood. Take the Midwest. Among Snyder, Kasich, Corbett, and Walker, the only one with no chance of winning is Corbett, who annoyed the entire state because of how he handled the Paterno issue.

    • Brian

      “When was the last election when 1 party had a outside chance to flip 8 or more Senate Seats?”

      2010, 2008, 2006, 1994, 1986, 1980, 1974

      Seven times in the last 40 years. Eight times including next Tuesday.

  • Matt

    This stands in contrast to Republican governors in battleground or Democratic-leaning states including Susana Martinez of New Mexico, John Kasich of Ohio, Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Brian Sandoval in Nevada, all of whom are sailing toward re-election.

    This makes it sound like Chris Christie is running for re-election in 2014; however he ran (and overwhelmingly reelected) in 2013 before the GWB scandal.

  • Violet

    I’m trying to have a glass half full attitude toward this entire election. Given Obama’s (undeserved) dismal approval, and the Democrats’ incompetence at capitalizing on disapproval of Republicans, even if the R’s take the Senate, they will likely have only a slight majority. Far less than a wave or mandate. With less than 60 seats, despite the anticipated end zone dancing, not too much they can do before 2016.

    I also agree w- Professor Wang that the governors are more crucial than people may realize.

    • Edward G. Talbot

      With 51 votes they can eliminate the 60 vote requirement. It’s an interesting question whether they would, but it’s not true that 60 votes is necessarily a limiting factor. the real limiting factor is Obama’s veto.

    • Davey

      Looking at the likelihood of a Dem President in 2016 and almost certain Senate majority, even if they lose it for two years, I would generally say that Republicans would have to be insane to remove the filibuster. But, you know, there’s “I’m not a witch” and the Mexican laser war idea…evidence that things I see as insane can and will happen in this climate.

    • Brian

      Talbot: If Rs eliminate the 60 vote requirement, it will be the biggest victory for progressive Democrats that has been seen since the 1974 post-Watergate election and reforms.

      Nobody wants flexible and accountable action in Congress more than prog Dems and the 2016 election will — unless a bizarre outlier — produce the most prog Dem majority in decades. Unleashing them with no filibuster and the likely Dem majority in the House after 2022 redistricting will shift the landscape.

  • Canadian fan

    One actually doesn’t have to go back 34 years for a Senate wave election. What makes the Reagan wave of 1980 stand out, though, is that it holds the historical record for incumbents defeated – nine. But since 1980, Republicans have never defeated more than two sitting senators in one cycle. In the GOP wave of 2010, they gained 6 seats, but only one came from an incumbent. This year Republicans also want to win 6 seats. But although they have counted on 3 open seats, South Dakota is generally no longer considered certain. Even so, they would still need to break a 34 year precedent by defeating 3 sitting senators. And they would also need to keep Kansas, Georgia, and Kentucky from changing hands. None of that is certain either.

    • Savanna

      Canadian Fan,

      I want to say I am sorry for your nation’s tragedy at Parliament hill today. I was so heartened to hear your members speak so thoughtfully about how it mustn’t be allowed to unbalance your principles of democracy. I was thinking I hope some of ours could be inspired to think more in those terms.

    • JayBoy2k

      Thanks Canadian Fan,
      I am still working & searching historical elections on losses of Senate Seats (13Rs in 1958, 10Ds in 1994) and specifically Senate Incumbents losing.
      So, with 9 as the historical max loss of Incumbent seats, we have a distinct possibility of 2 Rs (McConnell, Roberts) and 6 Ds (Pryor, Landrieu, Begich, Udall, Shaheen, Hagan). These are all close races, most within 3 points.
      Agree not likely but possible that we would have a significant result that few in the media choose to discuss.
      I am struck by the fact that House Incumbents do not seem to have this problem.
      It may be that low approval toward “Congress” plays more to the Senate than the House; and hurts Incumbents in Swing State close races.

  • Joe

    Sam, two questions I have.
    One, The GA Gov race. In the latest SUSA poll, we find Nunn still leading and the trend has been heading in her direction now for the last few weeks. If her numbers continue to rise, enough that she potentially avoids a runoff, do you think she will bring Carter with her. While the trend for Nunn is in the right direction, Carter seems to be stuck right around 45 (+/- 2) with no real movement.

    Also, there are now 2 (potentially 3 if you count the Cotton story yesterday) scandals that may upset the races in AK and in SD as reported today by several sources, the AK National guard story being the latest one. Do you see any potential movement, or are these non stories and won’t have any impact on voters?

    • Insidious Pall

      There are other states as well where the question of ticket splitting vs coattails between governor and senate candidates exists. Illinois, Kansas, and Colorado ave close races where the success of one candidate may help the other. And in Michigan, Repubs are worried that senate candidate Land may be a drag on Rick Snyder’s totals.

  • Olav Grinde

    I am curious about yet another issue: How strong is the correlation between campaign spending and lead in the polls?

    PAC and SuperPacc money designed to clearly favor a certain candidate must of course be counted in such an analysis…

  • Joe Halloran

    So, I hate to say it, but you should probably have Maryland on this list – yes, Brown is ahead but not by nearly as much as he should be. A Hogan victory is not inconceivable.

  • CRM

    Kansas isn’t tied anymore. :)

  • Olav Grinde

    Relieved to see the Meta-Margin plummet like a rock, from R +1.2 to a mere + 0.4 in less than a week.

    Eleven Senate races have margins of 4.0 % or less.

    Talk about a knife-edge election!

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