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Governors to watch for 2016 and beyond: What the polls tell us

- October 21, 2014

Of the 28 incumbent governors running for reelection in 2014, who are the true standouts this election cycle?  The question is more than just a pundit’s parlor game: today’s successful governors are tomorrow’s presidential candidates.  Indeed, several incumbents on the ballot this year including Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.), Susana Martinez (R-N.M.), and Scott Walker (R-Wis.) have already been mentioned as possible presidential and vice-presidential contenders.  Thus the list of hopefuls seeking their parties’ nominations in 2016 and 2020 will almost certainly include some of the governors who win a new term this Nov. 4.

Which incumbent governors can credibly lay claim to cultivating the kind of broad-based popularity required to win national office?  Answering this question requires more than simply looking at poll numbers.  We need to adjust these numbers for the fact that some governors have an easier path to reelection than others.  First, all things being equal, governors perform better in states that are their parties’ strongholds.  Second, political scientists have shown that electorates prefer government control to be balanced between the two parties, and thus they penalize governors when the state’s legislature is controlled by the same party.  Third, President Obama’s low approval ratings are dragging down the poll numbers of Democratic governors this year.

In order to account for these advantages and disadvantages, I use the latest election poll averages from Pollster.com to estimate the power of each of these factors on incumbent governors’ poll numbers. This generates a prediction for each governor’s performance in the polls. For the purposes of identifying high-quality future candidates for national office, we should take note of governors whose actual poll numbers exceed their predicted margins. Such over-performance serves as a rough signal of an incumbent’s quality and his or her ability to appeal to a national audience down the road.  States in which incumbents are currently performing particularly well are shaded in green on the map below.
Governors Map

Five incumbents New York’s Cuomo, plus Republicans Robert Bentley (Ala.), Bill Haslam (Tenn.), John Kasich (Ohio), and Brian Sandoval (Nev.) lead the pack.  Each enjoys a margin in the polls that is at least six points bigger than predicted by state fundamentals. At the top of the list is Kasich, whose current 63-37 percent polling margin puts him an astounding 11 points ahead of predictions.  To get a sense of Kasich’s strength, compare his performance to that of fellow Midwestern Republican governors Walker and Michigan’s Rick Snyder both of whom are just barely beating expectations in the polls. 

To be sure, Kasich had the good fortune to draw a remarkably weak opponent whose candidacy has basically imploded.  But during his term as governor, he’s also largely avoided the kind of knock-down, drag-out ideological fights catalyzed by Snyder and Walker over state policy. Governing from the middle (at least relative to their states’ electorates) has also been an approach ascribed to Cuomo, Haslam, and Sandoval.

Moderation is precisely not the way of Gov. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), one of 2014’s poorest performing gubernatorial incumbents.  He finds himself in a neck-and-neck reelection battle instead of the easy victory expected in a state Obama lost by 20 points in 2012.  All signs indicate Brownback’s electoral troubles are due to his ambitious conservative agenda that included dramatic cuts in taxes—and spending, but not enough to cover a revenue shortfall that led to the downgrading of the state’s bond rating.  Other states in which governors are performing particularly poorly are shaded in brown on the map; they include Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Paul LePage (R-Me.), Butch Otter (R-Idaho), and Pat Quinn (D-Ill.).

But the ignominious designation for the poorest performing incumbent goes to Republican Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania.  He currently trails challenger Tom Wolf by 20 percentage points, while the fundamentals say he should hold a narrow lead.  Reviled by the state’s public sector unions and shunned by conservatives, Corbett has presided over a schools crisis in Philadelphia after cutting $1 billion in state aid to education and engaged in highly publicized battles with his own party in the state legislature that have yielded little in terms of policy change.  Journalist Tom Ferrick Jr., a veteran observer of

Pennsylvania politics, summarizes Corbett’s tenure as “beleaguered, endangered, hapless” – three words that say more about the poor performance of an incumbent governor than any model ever can.