Will Governors Hurt GOP’s White House Prospects?

Stuart Rothenberg June 17, 2011 · 9:32 AM EDT

After seeing the argument multiple times that Republican governors’ low poll numbers in key states could severely damage the prospects of the eventual GOP presidential nominee, I figured it was time to track down how that argument spread and to take a look at it.

On May 25, Democratic pollsters Tom Jensen and Dean Debnam of Public Policy Polling released results of an Ohio survey and asserted that President Barack Obama would be helped next year in the state, and in other states, because of unpopular Republican governors.

That was followed on May 30 by a dubious Politico piece that identified Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) as Obama’s “secret weapon” in his bid to carry the Sunshine State next year.

The next day, on the website TPM, intern-turned-writer Jon Terbush (bachelor’s degree in writing, literature and publishing, Emerson College, 2009) instructed us that not only Scott but “several newly minted Republican governors” may help improve “President Obama’s re-election odds.”

Then came a flurry of pieces ranging from a brief item on the San Francisco Examiner’s website to a posting on the Washington Post’s “The Fix” blog and finally a more serious effort in the Post by political scientist and friend (and Roll Call contributing writer) Norman Ornstein, who at least presented a rationale for the conclusion and made some interesting points about upcoming state spending challenges.

What has been missing from every one of these pieces is evidence of unpopular governors damaging their presidential nominees’ prospects in the past. In fact, not a single one of the people who have asserted that the damage is likely pointed to a previous instance where it occurred.

Now, it’s certainly possible that this could be the first time in our nation’s history that an unpopular governor of a swing state will damage his party’s presidential nominee, but the paucity of evidence surely is a problem for those making the argument.

Essentially, what we have been given by the folks at PPP and others is a scenario, a notion, an idea, a thought. They are a dime a dozen in politics. Every candidate I interview has a scenario of how he is going to win. Every vacuous talking head on TV has a scenario about some outcome.

I looked for instances where an unpopular governor was the decisive factor in how a state voted for president, and I didn’t find much.

In Missouri in 2008, then-Gov. Matt Blunt (R) was so extremely unpopular that he didn’t run for re-election. But Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried Missouri with 49.4 percent of the vote while the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Jay Nixon, was winning with 58.4 percent (and running more than 8 points ahead of his party’s presidential nominee).

Given that McCain drew only 45.7 percent of the vote nationally that year, he ran 3.7 points better in Missouri. In 2000 and 2004, when the state was having very close gubernatorial races and George W. Bush was winning the state more easily, Bush ran a mere 2.6 and 2.5 points stronger in Missouri than he did nationally.

In other words, Missouri voters didn’t have trouble making a distinction between the gubernatorial and presidential races, and they didn’t have trouble distinguishing Nixon from Obama.

I found the same situation in Montana in 2004. Unpopular GOP Gov. Judy Martz opted not to run for re-election, and a Democrat won her open seat. But Bush carried the state in his re-election bid, again demonstrating that voters made a distinction between the GOP candidates.

Of course, Missouri and Montana aren’t perfect examples because the PPP-Politico-TPM hypothesis posits a sitting governor in midterm — and therefore not on the ballot — affecting a presidential race.

We can, of course, point to a midterm dynamic of an unpopular president damaging his party’s candidates downballot, such as what happened in 1958, 1974, 1982, 2006 and 2010.

But the normal midterm dynamic when the president is unpopular results from voters going to the polls to send a message to the commander in chief. Does anyone seriously believe that voters in Ohio, Florida or Wisconsin are going to vote for president to send a message to their governors?

PPP’s Debnam argues that Ohio Gov. John Kasich has hurt the “Republican brand,” and that same argument can be made about other unpopular GOP governors. That is not an unreasonable point. It just isn’t a compelling one.

The national GOP brand in the fall of 2012 is more likely to be defined by the party’s presidential nominee (or even the Congressional party over the next 17 months), not individual governors or state issues. We will all be focused on the primaries, the presidential hopefuls, the national economy and Obama, not on Scott, Kasich or Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — none of whom will be on the ballot next year.

I do not dismiss out of hand Ornstein’s argument to me that if he were the president, “I would go into Ohio and campaign on this theme: If you like John Kasich’s economic policies, you are going to LOVE [fill in the name of the Republican nominee].” But that will be merely one of Obama’s messages.

If voters are unhappy with the president (and especially his handling of the economy) and believe he does not deserve another term, and if the GOP nominee is an acceptable alternative, it’s unlikely that voters in Florida and Ohio will vote to rehire the president because they are unhappy with the performance of their Republican governor. It never works that way.