A Good Economy Doesn't Always Mean a Popular Governor

It's generally true that if things are good in state, than things are good for the governor. There are some exceptions, though.
by | September 9, 2013
Even though New Jersey has only the 42nd best economy, according to our calculations, Republican Gov. Chris Christie is cruising to re-election in a generally Democratic state. New Jersey Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

If the economy's doing well, then it usually follows that the governor is doing well too. But are economic factors really the most important element in a governor's popularity?

To answer this question, we decided to look at how much of a correlation exists between successful state economies and popular governors, and between poor state economies and unpopular governors.

It's worth noting that whether governors have an impact on a state's economy is a matter of great conjecture. In fact, there's good reason to think a governor's influence on the economy is limited compared to national policy and industrial trends.

Still, this column looks at perceptions rather than economic realities. So if a state's voters are giving a governor credit or blame for the economy, then we'll assume that that has an impact on the governor's popularity, even if it's not statistically justified.

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To determine which states are doing well and which aren't, we looked at five variables: the current state unemployment rate; improvement in the state unemployment rate over the past year; per capita state GDP in 2012; percent change in real state GDP between 2011 and2012; and percent change in state personal income, from the fourth quarter of 2012 to the first quarter of 2013. These variables were chosen to measure both the state's overall economic ranking among its peers as well as its improvement in recent months under the governor's watch.

We ranked all 50 states on these variables, then created an average ranking for each state by double-weighting current unemployment and percent change in real GDP. We decided to focus on the top and bottom of the list because it's hard to say whether the states in the broad middle have relatively strong or weak economies. Here are the 10 states with the healthiest economies. The number following the state is the weighted average ranking for the five variables we used. A rank of 1 in each category would produce an average rating of 1.0, while a rank of 50 would produce an average of 50.0.

1. Washington 12.1

2. Iowa 12.3

3. Texas 13.0

4. Utah 13.4

5. North Dakota 13.6

6. Hawaii 14.0

7. Minnesota 14.6

8. Oregon 17.9

9. West Virginia 18.0

10. Alaska 18.7

Here are the 15 states with the weakest economies.

36. Michigan 29.1

37. Pennsylvania 29.3

38. Arizona 29.7

39. Maine 30.3

40. Louisiana 30.7

41. Nevada 30.9

42. New Jersey 31.1

43. Rhode Island 31.7

44. New Mexico 32.4

45. Illinois 32.9

46. Kentucky 33.6

47. Delaware 36.0

48. Mississippi 36.0

49. Connecticut 36.1

50. Arkansas 39.0

Looking at this list -- and conducting interviews with political observers in many of these states -- suggests a few "rules" for understanding the intersection of economic success and gubernatorial popularity.

Rule 1: Economic malaise accentuates the negative aspects of a governor's record and minimizes the positive aspects, even those that aren't directly related to the economy.

A prime example is Connecticut, a state where the economy ranks 49th on our list. Gov. Dan Malloy is a Democrat in a solidly blue state and has won plaudits for his handling of the Newtown school shooting and for his leadership during several weather emergencies. However, his poll numbers from Quinnipiac University are mediocre -- a 47 percent to 47 percent split in job approval, with only 44 percent of voters saying he deserves re-election, compared to 46 percent who say he does not.

In a series of interviews in Hartford, political observers from both parties agreed that Malloy's biggest problem has been the state's weak economy. Coming in with an urgent deficit to fix, Malloy was forced to push for tax increases as well as cuts in services and public employee benefits. Residents of the state "went through a big sacrifice across the board, and unfortunately, it hasn't been the case that the sacrifice was followed by growth," said Kevin Reynolds, legal counsel for the Connecticut Democratic Party. (For a more detailed look at Connecticut, click here.)

Another example of a solidly blue state with an embattled governor is Illinois, the 45th-ranked state on our list. Gov. Pat Quinn has struggled with a number of policy challenges, including a particularly difficult state pension outlook. He's facing a strong primary challenge from former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and a potentially viable challenge from the GOP.

"If the state's overall economy was improving and the job numbers in particular were trending up, it would make it easier for voters and the news media to overlook the governor's failings as a leader and his inability to move legislation through the legislature, and it could create a more positive, or maybe hopeful, light through which to view the state's glaring budget and pension problems," said Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois-Springfield.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, state Democrats have specifically targeted Gov. Tom Corbett for a job growth rate that lags the national average and for unemployment around or above the national average, said Keegan Gibson, who edits the newsletter PoliticsPA.com. Corbett is now perhaps the most vulnerable Republican governor in the country for 2014.

"Corbett campaigned straightforwardly in 2010," Gibson said. "He said, essentially, if elected he would make tough spending choices that would be painful in the short term but would lead to economic growth in the long run. The average voter has felt the short-term pain, but hasn't yet experienced the long-term benefits."

Other economically struggling states with governors in trouble include Michigan (Republican Rick Snyder) and Rhode Island (where Democrat Lincoln Chafee this month decided not to seek another term).

Rule 2: By contrast, positive economic news can crowd out aspects in a governor's record that are potentially unpopular.

In Minnesota, where the Democrats have had an edge but hardly a monopoly in recent years, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has pursued some controversial policies in concert with the Democratic-controlled legislature, including a tax hike. However, thanks to its economy, which is ranked 7th best on our list, Dayton hasn't faced a backlash, enjoying approval ratings of over 50 percent in recent polls, said Steven Schier, a Carleton College political scientist.

Meanwhile, in Iowa, another state with robust partisan competition, Republican Gov. Terry Brandstad is in fine shape for re-election in 2014, due in part to an economy that, by our measure, is the second best in the nation. In addition to benefiting from a healthy agricultural sector, Branstad can claim success in securing billions of dollars in investment from such companies as Facebook, Google and MidAmerican Energy, though some Democrats are skeptical of tax breaks he's offered.

"Branstad campaigned in 2010 on rebuilding Iowa's economy, and the data thus far are supportive," said Christopher W. Larimer, a political scientist at the University of Northern Iowa. "Right or wrong, voters attribute a positive economy to the actions of the executive."

Another state where the governor is benefiting from a relatively strong economy is Hawaii, where Democrat Neil Abercrombie has recovered ground after appearing to be one of the most endangered governors in the country just a year ago.

Rule 3: Positive aspects of a governor's personality and style can sometimes be enough to override bad economic news, but personality weaknesses, in combination with bad economic news, can doom a governor.

The prime example of a governor overcoming a bad economic hand through sheer force of personality is New Jersey's Chris Christie. His state had only the 42nd best economy on our list, but he's cruising to re-election -- even though he's a Republican in a generally Democratic state.

"Voters are unhappy with Christie's performance on jobs and taxes, but his ratings remain near the high point he reached immediately" after Hurricane Sandy, said Dave Redlawsk, a Rutgers University political scientist. "Why? Because they are keying in on his tell-it-like-it-is style and a feeling that he is 'leading,' whether they like where he is going or not."

Neighboring Delaware is in a similar situation, in this case with a Democratic governor, Jack Markell.

Delaware ranks 47th on our list, but Markell has assembled a broad coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans, said Allan Loudell, a news anchor at WDEL radio in Wilmington. In fact, he's tapped as his economic development director Alan Levin, a Republican once thought to be the GOP's best hope to win the governorship.

"Markell is a great retail campaigner, and a great communicator in a retail state," Loudell said. "Moderates of both parties figure Markell and Levin are doing the best they can under adverse economic circumstances."

In the meantime, a governor's weak communication skills can worsen their economic dilemma.

In Louisiana, GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal, after a tenure that started with wide support as a technocrat, has taken a riskier policy course, including a proposal for tax reform (which was unpopular and died in the legislature) and significant budget cuts. The health of the economy, which ranked 40th on our list, didn't help; his approval ratings in some polls have fallen to the high 30s.

"Jindal's lagging popularity is based on irritating powerful groups of Louisiana constituents, including teachers, state workers, Democrats and businesses who doubt that his policies are doing them any good," said Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. "If Louisiana's economy were truly booming, Jindal's popularity be higher."

And in Maine, where the economy ranks 39th on our list, the economic challenges are merely worsening Gov. Paul LePage's surplus of self-made problems.

"LePage has mostly gotten a pass on the weak economy in Maine," said Mark D. Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine. While LePage has had some success deflecting some of the blame on his Democratic predecessor, John Baldacci, and Democratic legislators, Brewer said the biggest reason for LePage's low approval ratings has to do with the "outlandish" statements he makes, from telling the NAACP that it could "kiss my butt" to saying that President Obama "hates white people."

Rule 4: A governor who is lucky enough to have a weak opposition party can survive even bad economic times.

In states such as Nevada and Mississippi, governors who are stuck with relatively weak economy are nevertheless doing well because there's little alternative.

In Nevada, the 41st-ranking state on our list, Republican Brian Sandoval "remains quite popular, mostly because the Democrats are not nearly so skilled and because of his style and savvy," said Las Vegas-based political analyst Jon Ralston.

And in 48th-ranked Mississippi, there's essentially no Democrat who can counter GOP Gov. Phil Bryant. The national Democratic Party is out of step with Mississippi voters on social issues, and social issues often trump economic matters in the region.

"Most Mississippi voters tend to relate more to social issues than to economic issues in their voting patterns, and they favor politicians like Bryant who are strong on the Second Amendment, oppose gay rights and want stronger measures against abortion."

Rule 5: Voters may blame national politicians more than state politicians for local economic conditions.

For instance, New Mexico, the 44th-ranked state on our list, is particularly dependent on federal spending. Observers in the state say that many voters believe that New Mexico's economic straits have more to do with Washington -- where the sequester is squeezing federal spending -- than Santa Fe.

And in Kentucky, the 46th-ranked state and a solidly Republican state these days, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear beat the odds to win the governorship. "The anti-Obama feeling in this state is probably so strong that Beshear fades into insignificance when it comes to attributing credit or blame for the state economy," said Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

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