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The Partisanship of the Governor Doesn’t Matter Much

- August 6, 2010

A colleague recently flagged this paper on a polisci listserv. It seems an important antidote to speculation — e.g., this, from a year ago, by Adam Nagourney — about GOP gains in the governor’s mansion, however likely they may be.

bq. Using panel data from US states over the period 1941-2002, I measure the impact of gubernatorial partisanship on a wide range of different policy settings and economic outcomes. Across 32 measures, there are surprisingly few differences in policy settings, social outcomes and economic outcomes under Democrat and Republican Governors. In terms of policies, Democratic Governors tend to prefer slightly higher minimum wages. Under Republican Governors, incarceration rates are higher, while welfare caseloads are higher under Democratic Governors. In terms of social and economic outcomes, Democratic Governors tend to preside over higher median post-tax income, lower posttax inequality, and lower unemployment rates. However, for 26 of the 32 dependent variables, gubernatorial partisanship does not have a statistically significant impact on policy outcomes and social welfare. I find no evidence of gubernatorial partisan differences in tax rates, welfare generosity, the number of government employees or their salaries, state revenue, incarceration rates, execution rates, pre-tax incomes and inequality, crime rates, suicide rates, and test scores. These results are robust to the use of regression discontinuity estimation, to take account of the possibility of reverse causality. Overall, it seems that Governors behave in a fairly non-ideological manner.

That is from a 2008 paper by Andrew Leigh. Here are gated and ungated versions.

The tendency to treat elections by as a horse race makes it hard to acknowledge that electing a new party may not change policy that much. After all, if policy won’t change much, why should we fixate on who is winning and losing during the campaign? This leads people to overestimate executive power and underestimate how much current policies can be protected by less visible actors, such as legislators, bureaucrats, and interest groups.

Policies, like political institutions, tend to be sticky. That’s hardly a novel point, but it bears repeating.