Governors are key players in the American federal system. In addition to administering complex bureaucratic organizations with vital responsibilities and multi-billion dollar budgets, they are expected to propose their own legislative programs, work closely with their state’s congressional delegation, communicate their goals to the public, and lead their state parties in elections. Moreover, in recent years the nation’s statehouses have frequently served as launching pads for presidential campaigns. Four of the last six presidents served as governors before moving on to the White House and several of the leading contenders for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination are current or former governors.
Given the vital role of governors in American politics, it is somewhat surprising that political scientists have paid scant attention to gubernatorial elections. While there is a vast literature on congressional elections, only a handful of studies have focused on gubernatorial elections, perhaps because they appear to be so idiosyncratic—shaped by local candidates and issues. But appearances can be deceiving. I present evidence in this article that gubernatorial elections are strongly influenced by national political tides and that their outcomes can be predicted with a high degree of accuracy by the same factors that predict the outcomes of congressional elections.
Since the end of World War II there have been dramatic changes in the frequency and timing of gubernatorial elections. During the late 1940s, 22 of the 48 states elected their governors every two years and about as many gubernatorial elections took place in presidential election years as in midterm election years. Over time, however, there has been a shift from two-year to four-year terms for governors with the large majority of gubernatorial elections taking place in midterm election years. Today only Vermont and New Hampshire continue to elect their governors every two years, 34 states elect them in midterm election years only, 11 states elect them in presidential election years only, and 5 states—Virginia, New Jersey, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Kentucky—elect them in odd-numbered years.
The 2010 Forecast
We can use the results in Table 1 to forecast the outcome of the 2010 gubernatorial elections. The values of two of the three predictors in the model are already known: there is a Democratic president and Republicans currently hold 17 of the 37 governorships up for election this year. Only the result of the early September Gallup generic ballot question is not yet known. Therefore, Table 2 displays conditional forecasts of Republican seat gains depending on the generic ballot result.
Table 2. Predicted Results of 2010 Gubernatorial Elections based on Early September Generic Ballot
Source: Congressional Quarterly’s Guide to U.S. Elections and data compiled by author
The data in Table 2 indicate that Republicans are likely to gain between 4 and 7 governorships in this year’s elections. Since they currently control 23 statehouses, this would leave them with between 27 and 30 governorships. Since the Gallup generic ballot question has been averaging close to a tie over the past few months, the most likely outcome at this point would appear to be a Republican gain of 5 governorships which would give the GOP control of 28 of the nation’s 50 statehouses.