An unusually large number of incumbent governors could go down to defeat this November. Democrats in Colorado, Connecticut and Illinois – and Republicans in Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Michigan and Wisconsin – are in tight races. Pennsylvania’s Republican governor, Tom Corbett, has been all but written-off, and one Democratic incumbent, Hawaii’s Neil Abercrombie, has already fallen in his party’s primary. Even if Republicans recapture the Senate, the number of tight races for governor indicates that the election is less about party preferences and more about bipartisan voter dissatisfaction.
Historically, incumbent governors are slightly more likely to be defeated than members of Congress, but their re-election rates still hover around 80 percent. It has been 20 years since six governors (five of them Democrats) were swept from office as part of the Republican wave of 1994. But the better comparison for 2014 may prove to be to 1978, when seven governors lost – the most in any election over the past 40 years – despite an economy that was growing at a healthy clip.
President Barack Obama is right that the country’s 54 straight months of job growth is “the longest uninterrupted stretch of job creation in our history.” Yet it’s also the longest recovery to feel like a recession, with the possible exception of 1975-1979, when the benefits of 4 percent average annual growth were negated by high unemployment, inflation and interest rates. A July 1978 poll – in the midst of a 40-month economic expansion – found that 58 percent of the public thought the economy was getting worse. They were proved right.
Today, unemployment, inflation and interest rates are all low, but so are economic growth and public confidence. A recent poll found that 72 percent of Americans think the economy is recession. Workers, unlike economists, measure recessions in personal income, which has been flat or declining in real dollars, and in job prospects, which are increasingly centered on lower-wage work.
In 1978, economists were debating how to lower the Misery Index, which measured inflation and unemployment. Today, they are debating whether we have entered a period of “secular stagnation,” characterized by long-term low growth. The argument probably won’t be resolved for years, if ever. In the meantime, a recovery that feels like recession – let’s call it a recessery – is dragging on, and hope for change has faded.
In October 2012, a Wall Street Journal-NBC poll found that 45 percent of Americans thought the economy would get better over the next 12 months – the highest level of confidence since September 2009. Today, only 27 percent feel that way, and only 23 percent think the country is moving in the right direction, reviving a sense that a national feeling of malaise, the curse of the Jimmy Carter years, has returned. As long as that feeling persists, more incumbents will face a tougher-than-usual road to re-election.
That is especially true for governors, who as chief executives are ultimately responsible for their states’ economic conditions. While the economy is not the only issue that matters in campaigns, poll after poll shows that improving the economy is the most important issue for voters – and governors cannot count on party loyalty to save them.
Of the 12 governors who are most in danger of losing (or have lost already), seven hold office in states won by their party’s presidential nominee in 2012 – and eight are Republican. Even if Republicans defeat the seven Democratic senators who represent red states – and two red state Republican senators (Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell and Kansas’ Pat Roberts) manage to survive – talk of a Republican wave may be tempered by gubernatorial losses. For incumbents in both parties, this is a bad year to be facing a well-organized and well-financed challenger.
Thus far, incumbent governors have largely escaped the consequences of the country’s economic troubles. The full toll of the financial collapse did not become clear until late in the 2008 election cycle, leaving opponents little time to galvanize support. Four years ago, three of four swing-state incumbents were defeated, while 10 incumbents won – not a great year for governors, but not a disaster either. Two years ago, things were looking up, helping all six incumbent governors – and Obama – keet their jobs.
This year, if the mood of voters does not improve, the governors could have their worst night since 1994 – or even 1978. The difference between a recessory and a recession matters a great deal to economists and incumbents, but not to voters.
Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and domestic policy. He previously served as director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.