Political Animal


December 03, 2012 12:43 PM No Reverse Coattails

By Ed Kilgore

The University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics site crosses some t’s and dots some i’s with respect to an argument that should have been over quite some time ago: as the 2012 results confirm, there’s not much evidence that holding a governorship gives a party an advantage in carrying a state in presidential elections.

After the Republican tsunami two years ago, numerous broadcast media anchors and analysts stated on air that the GOP gubernatorial pick-ups in several key battleground states would pose a problem for Barack Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012.
Purple states such as Florida, Iowa, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin all saw Republicans pick-up open seats or knock off Democratic or independent incumbents.
Media anchors, hosts, and analysts such as John King (CNN), Bret Baier (FOX), Joe Trippi (FOX), Gloria Borger (CNN), and Kirsten Powers (FOX) all remarked at the advantage Republicans would receive in the 2012 presidential race as a result of these gubernatorial victories, and the barriers it would place for an Obama reelection victory.
Smart Politics issued a study that challenged these statements and, 24 months before the 2012 election, projected that Barack Obama’s reelection fate in no way hinged on which party controlled the governor’s mansion in these battleground states.

And now the triumphant evidence:

[W]hile the Republican gubernatorial (and state legislative) success stories during the 2010 election cycle may have enabled the GOP to craft more favorable district lines for 2012 legislative races, the impact on which presidential nominee carried these swing states was, once again, non-existent.
Obama did not lose any of the battleground states in which Democrats fell flat in gubernatorial races two years ago.
In fact, almost all of the closest races in the country saw a presidential nominee carry a state with a governor in office from the opposite party - including all seven key GOP gubernatorial pickups in 2010.
Of the 16 states decided by single digits in 2012, 11 voted for the presidential nominee of a party other than its sitting governor, including each of the five states with the narrowest margin of victory.
Florida (#1), Ohio (#2), Virginia (#4), Pennsylvania (#5), Iowa (#8), Nevada (#9), Wisconsin (#10), Michigan (#14), and New Mexico (#16) were all states with Republican governors carried by Barack Obama by single digits.
Meanwhile, North Carolina (#3) and Missouri (#14) have Democratic governors and voted for Mitt Romney.
The only competitive contests in which the state voted for a presidential nominee of the same party as its governor were Colorado (#6), New Hampshire (#7), Minnesota (#11), Georgia (#12), and Arizona (#13).
Overall, across the 600 statewide presidential contests conducted during the 12 election cycles since 1968, states have now voted for a presidential candidate from a different political party than its reigning governor 301 times, or 50.2 percent.

Regardless of what “numerous broadcast media anchors and analysts stated on air,” no one should have seriously maintained the “reverse coattails” hypothesis. Presidential campaigns no longer depend in any significant way on gubernatorial prestige or the personal political organizations of governors. More importantly, since a big majority of governors are elected in midterm elections, the ever-increasing gap between the partisan leanings of presidential and midterm electorates makes midterm results poor predictors of presidential results (this is probably why the “reverse coattail effect” is now particularly non-existent).

Now it’s true that the 2010 state-level victories put Republicans in a position to try to tilt the 2012 elections via voter suppression efforts designed to make the presidential electorate more like the midterm electorate. But these efforts largely failed, especially in the battleground states.

There are a lot of good and important reasons for both parties to want to win governorships (and for that matter, control of state legislatures). Influencing the outcome of presidential elections just isn’t one of them.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • T2 on December 03, 2012 12:55 PM:

    about the only thing that a GOP governor can do on a national scale is 1-oversee redistricting, and 2-eliminate thousands of jobs to make the economy look/be worse than it should while a Dem is in the White House. Both can be pretty significant.

  • Del Walmar on December 03, 2012 12:56 PM:

    While the argument holds true in 2012, but take a look at 2000, and you'll find that Jeb Bush helped his brother "carry" Florida.

  • paul on December 03, 2012 12:57 PM:

    There might have been a reverse coattail effect if newly-elected republicans governors and state legislators hadn't been such unmitigated vicious assh*les in most of the states they took. But when your policies have tens of thousands of people out in your state's streets demonstrating against you, or citizens dismayed at your corruption giving you a lower approval rating than the republican-controlled House, you're not really an advertisement for the benefits of voting republican.

    In fact, there's a good argument that seeing republican governors and state legislatures in action helped the democrats' cause. All they had to do when organizing is ask "Do you want people like this in the White House?"

  • c u n d gulag on December 03, 2012 1:06 PM:

    What Paul said!

    Also too - maybe the old adage, "All politics is local," is outdated in the internet age.

    Before, people looked to endorsements from local politicians and newspapers, and made up their minds later.

    And now, when they're constantly barraged for contributions from Presidential candidates, they make up their minds earlier.

  • liam foote on December 03, 2012 1:07 PM:

    As a native Badger and Cheesehead I had little doubt that Obama would carry Wisconsin in 2012, as it has become a virtually safe Blue state for presidential elections. Not to mention Tammy Baldwin.

    But Wisconsin is also a pendulum that swung to the GOP for Gov. Walker and Sen. Johnson in 2010 (tossing Russ Feingold in the process,) then back to booting out State Senators and recalling Walker.

    Funny place, it is. Denizens of Dairylaad get along well, despite the apparent turmoil stirred up by outside funding. We move ahead together, now rewarding the moderates like Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Dist 17).

    Dale Schultz was first to break GOP lockstep with Walker and steer Wisconsin toward normalcy. He is the kind of politician we need and support, rather an Angus King with a cheesehead hat. Forward (WI state motto.)

  • Burr Deming on December 03, 2012 2:17 PM:

    Only going by aging memory: I don't think the theory of Governorships adding to the chances of a party on the Presidential election depended on the prestige of the Governor. I think it depended on the positioning of names on the ballot, the Governor's party coming first.

    If true, this would add intuitive evidence to your case, I think. It's hard to imagine anyone at all deciding for Romney or Obama depending on whose name was above the other on the ballot.

  • R L Fast on December 03, 2012 2:21 PM:

    Republicans' voter suppression efforts in 2014 will be back, with a vengeance. Democrats will need to start soon to ensure that our supporters have the proper identification.

  • Robert Waldmann on December 03, 2012 5:14 PM:

    If it isn't one thing it's the other. The problem with data is that it's hard for them to average to exactly zero.

    I heard a reverse coat tails hypothesis in 2011. The idea was that the recognized horribleness of Walker, Scott and Kasich would help Obama. Ooops the evidence against the 2010 vintage reverse coat tails hypothesis is evidence in favor of the 2011 reverse coat tails hypothesis. Really my honest guess was that the allegedly unsupported hypothesis would be that Obama would do surprisingly well in states which elected Republican extremist governors in 2010.

    In any case, the method of looking at who won states with close vote totals makes no sense. The states to look at are chosen based on the same variable which is averaged. I promise statisticians consider this, sorry to use technical terms, a major boo boo.

    Rather the Obama vote should be compared to a predicted vote based on Obama 2008 vote and, say, the change in unemployment in the state January through October 2012 (that is what are called fundamentals by political scientists and Nate Silver, by which I mean the number Nate Silver calculated cause do you really think anyone else is going to do much better?). Look at this Obama surprise by change in party of governor 2008 to 2012 so shifting D to R in many states (including NJ and VA switching in 2009) and R to D in none IIRC.

    Well now I should just do it. Really Obama 2012 - Obama share 2008 on Republican Gov 2012 minus Republican Gov 2008 (note I've dropped the rest of the fundamentals). Oh crap, that's something I should just do rather than talk about doing it.

    Oh hell will be half vast.

    Nationwide HuffPo 2012 minus Wikipedia 2008 Obama's share declined 4
    Obamashare12 - 08
    Florida - 1 % Scott nega coat tails = -3%
    Iowa - 1% Branstead negatails -3%
    Indiana - 6% Deaver tail 2%
    Maine - 2% LaMontaine Lameness -2%
    New J + 0.6% Christie -4.6% -- which side was he on?
    Ohio -1 Kasich Kost Romney -3%
    Penn -2.5 Corbett Cost Romney 1.5%
    Virginia -1.5 McDonnell ??? negatail -2.5
    Wisconsin -3.4 Walker V Ryan's hope ? about average

    It sure seems to me that the nega coat tail hypothesis is supported by the data. Obama's vote share declined less in all the states where I remember a Republican gov winning in 2009 or 2010 except for Indiana.

    Would this be surprising ? Could there be worse advertisement for the Republican party ?

  • MGO on December 03, 2012 7:34 PM:

    It's bad enough when you can't deliver your state. Even worse not delivering your city. But not being able to deliver your neighborhood is downright sad.

    Here are the results for Janesville (Rock County) Wisconsin which has two congressional districts. Paul Ryan is in Ward 13 (0074CJanesville 13) precinct in Janesville:

    Election Results for Rock County as of 11/07/12 02:14 AM all precincts reporting (http://www.co.rock.wi.us/results11062012):

    President/Vice President (other candidates omitted):
    Candidate(s) Janesville/Rock County Ward 13
    Romney/Ryan 30,492 (37.83%) 483 (33.75%)
    Obama/Biden 49,158 (60.99%) 932 (65.13%)

    Representative in Congressional District 1 (other candidates omitted):
    Candidate(s) Janesville/Rock County Ward 13
    Paul Ryan 18,826 (46.39%) 569 (40.58%)
    Rob Zerban 20,902 (51.50%) 807 (57.56%)