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April 02, 2006

Governors: WTF?

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

I've seen people remark on this phenomenon in a couple of places, but nobody seems to have a good explanation for it, so I'll just bring it to your attention and see if anybody has any hypotheses.  When you look at the net approval ratings of our nation's governors, the most popular Democrats are almost all from red states.  Of the top 12 Democratic governors, 10 are from red states and 2 are from blue states.  The effect spans all regions of red America -- the West, Midwest, and South all have their popular Democrats.  Then there's a big gap, and you get the bottom nine Democrats, only one of whom is from a red state.  With Republicans, the correlations are much weaker, but it looks like the general direction is similar.  I wonder how long-standing this phenomenon is -- back in '94, Democrats Jim Hunt of NC and Evan Bayh of IN were the nation's top governors just after the GOP landslide.

It makes sense that governors would be somewhat insulated from national sentiment, since they don't have to obey the party leadership and they can focus on more local issues.  But this inverse effect is just weird.  What's going on? 

April 2, 2006 in Electoral Politics | Permalink


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I suspect it's a statistical artifact, that doesn't mean much of anything other than, as you note, governors are mostly insulated from national political trends. Popularity for a governor probably has more to do with perceived competence in governing than with party affiliation.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen,PhD,ARNP | Apr 2, 2006 8:05:12 PM

Governors are unable to play the "National Security" card, and the Rs lose a lot of hit points that way.

Posted by: biff3000 | Apr 2, 2006 8:10:00 PM

Perhaps Rs in blue states can't play the victim card as well, and they don't spend all their spare team attributing every evil under the sun to the local governor, like they do here in WA.

Posted by: Sandals | Apr 2, 2006 8:18:38 PM

With Republicans, the correlations are much weaker, but it looks like the general direction is similar.

I'm too lazy to Google around to find out what "the general direction" is. What did you mean?
Option 1: Red state governors are more popular than blue state governors.
Option 2: Mismatched governors are more popular than state-aligned governors.

If it's option 1, then one guess is that red-staters are more likely to like "their guy" regardless of party. (Insofar as they're more likely to like "their president guy" regardless of competence.)

Posted by: Allen K. | Apr 2, 2006 9:52:25 PM

Sorry about that, Allen, it's option 2. No googling is necessary -- click the link.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Apr 2, 2006 10:38:11 PM

Well, I guess one theory is that any Republican can win Kansas, but you have to be a pretty impressive Democrat to do the same. Or, more generally, people who win in mismatched states tend to be really good, and mediocre candidates have a much better chance of getting elected in a state where he or she has a party advantage.

Another theory is that governors in mismatched states are more sensitive to approval ratings and tend to be more responsive to the population than governors in matched states, who might take these things for granted.

Without further inspection of the states it’s hard to say how much a part (if any) the above theories play in real life, but I could see something similar happening. It sure is a strange dynamic though.

Posted by: gg | Apr 3, 2006 12:18:01 AM

IMO, it's because of taxes. Red State Democrats don't even dream of getting elected on a platform of higher taxes, and so they never support or propose tax increases, and so they avoid the chief Democratic Achilles heel. Show me an unpopular Democrat, I'll show you someone who, in some way, is perceived as being in favor of higher taxes. Of course it's not the whole story, but IMO it's a large part of it.

The funny thing is, I don't think Americans mind the actual amount they pay in taxes. They just resent like hell any politician who implies that they're not paying enough taxes, and should pay even more.

Posted by: roublen | Apr 3, 2006 12:51:44 AM

Option 2 is nonsense - the vast majority of the 25 most popular governors are from red states, with the exception of a three New England governors, Corzine, and Lingle of Hawaii. Of the most popular 12 Republican governors, only 3 come from Blue States.

Posted by: John | Apr 3, 2006 12:53:09 AM

And I think your position on taxes is used by much of the public as a proxy for other issues. In particular, high-tax reputation = "arrogant elitist who thinks he's better than you"

Posted by: roublen | Apr 3, 2006 12:57:38 AM

John, that's mainly a function of the fact that there are less blue states. At the bottom, of the six least popular GOP governors, only one is from a blue state.

I don't know many cases here, roublen, but Mark Warner was very popular despite passing tax increases.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Apr 3, 2006 1:16:47 AM

IIR, Warner in his first campaign made a very strong pledge not to to raise taxes. Later he traveled the state and specifically made the case for higher taxes in the context of infrstructure projects to reduce traffic and keep the state competitive. Plus his background as a "successful businessman" gave him credibility when he argued for these projects on grounds of economic competitiveness.

That said, Warner's proposal to raise taxes while still maintaining his popularity was a genuinely impressive political feat, IMO, one that most Democrats haven't pulled off up to now.

Of course, it's possible I may be wrong, and the perception of higher taxes is not the killer for Democrats. Or it's possible it may have been in the past, but not in the future.

Posted by: roublen | Apr 3, 2006 1:27:54 AM

C'mon, it's obvious. Democratic governors will be popular with Democrats, and Republican governors with Republicans. But mismatched governors are also popular with the opposite party-- because if they weren't, they would never have been elected in the first place.

Posted by: Cardinal Fang | Apr 3, 2006 1:47:40 AM

The Red State vs Blue State dichotmy was bogus from the get-go. All states are really purple.

Why buy into a favorite republican signifier which is all sound and fury?

Posted by: Aaron Adams | Apr 3, 2006 10:15:46 AM

Compromising on issues will naturally moderate them. Most American’s aren’t the bitter politicos that bloggers and blog readers are. They aren’t the partisans that usually represent us in the US Congress or White House.

The citizens of the US tend to want safer borders and the ability for families to stay together and they want small businesses to do well but they want corporations to be put in check.

The reason mismatched Governors do well is because they moderate their views and compromise to achieve real policy objectives. Warner is a great example because he was able to get major improvements in education and develop in-sourcing or farm-sourcing in rural Virginia. This allowed for better schools and incentives for corporations to move into rural VA, which in turn, helped diversify the farm economies of VA.

Usually single party state governments try to push their extreme flank agenda down the throats of the minority party and that is were the problem comes in—vouchers, anti-contraceptive legislation, school prayer, etc. These might be popular with the base, but it will alienate single issue voters, the minority party, and independents.

That’s just my $.02

Posted by: Matt | Apr 3, 2006 2:29:31 PM

As others have suggested perhaps most people favor moderate policies and mis-matched governors are more likely to pursue moderate policies (out of necessity if not conviction). Consider for example the claims that Reagan was a better President than Bush (43) only because he had to deal with a Democratic Congress.

Posted by: James B. Shearer | Apr 3, 2006 3:20:48 PM

I'm pretty liberal by most standards and think Romney has done a fairly decent job running my state. So if polled, I'd probably answer favorably.

On a national stage though...he'll get nothing from me and like it!

Posted by: Adrock | Apr 3, 2006 3:54:38 PM

I expect that a Governor who wins an election in a state where the opposite party is more popular has to have a lot of personal popularity of his own (from whatever source) to counter act that.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Apr 3, 2006 6:12:49 PM

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