The Gap Between What Voters Want and Who They Support

The governors running for president possess what voters are looking for -- yet all of them are struggling in the polls.
November 24, 2015
Donald F. Kettl
By Donald F. Kettl  |  Columnist
Former dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Volcker Alliance and the Brookings Institution

When the 2016 presidential campaign began, no one expected that the big collection of current and former governors would slide to the back of the pack. Governors once had an inside track to the White House. Is that a thing of the past? It’s hard to say for sure yet -- but the current governor-candidates have all had trouble. The ones with the most experience in governing have had the hardest time exciting citizens, while those with the least experience have created the most buzz.

Among Republicans with experience, Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, Texas' Rick Perry and Wisconsin's Scott Walker have dropped out. George Pataki (New York) hasn't escaped the second-string debate squad, while Chris Christie (New Jersey), Mike Huckabee (Arkansas) and John Kasich (Ohio) have also been mired in the bottom tier. The heir presumptive, Jeb Bush (Florida), found himself hemmed in from his first steps out of the gate.

It hasn’t been much different for the Democrats. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has gasped for oxygen, and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island couldn’t survive a disastrous debate performance.

What’s going on here? After all, governors have been winning presidential elections pretty consistently in recent times and in the nation’s history. In all, 17 presidents -- nearly 40 percent of the total -- have first served as governor. From 1901 (Theodore Roosevelt) through 2009 (George W. Bush), governors held the White House for 62 years, nearly three-fifths of the time.

This year, though, there’s something very different about the campaign. Voters are searching for authenticity, and governors have been unable to project it successfully. But that in itself is ironic.

The truth is that there’s no more authentic elected post in American government than the job of governor -- except, perhaps, that of mayor. State-level executives work in the harsh spotlight of government’s front lines, where mistakes are hard to hide. One misstep creates an instant black eye, as Chris Christie discovered when aides purposely created a traffic jam on lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge on a busy holiday weekend in 2013.

Governors nearly always have to be pragmatists. So when they launch presidential campaigns, they have no choice but to run on their records. Senators only have to stake out positions, not carry them out. Outsiders have the easiest time of all, since they don’t possess a government record to run on.

But underneath the quest for authenticity is an even deeper puzzle, because Americans profess to want a government that works, as a July poll by the Global Strategy Group found. It’s not that they think government is “too big.” Just 24 percent of potential voters believed that. Rather, they pointed to problems with a government that was “inefficient” (55 percent) and “wasteful” (49 percent). That might seem to play right into the hands of governors-as-presidential-candidates, since every one of them has tried to point to success in turning around inefficient and wasteful state bureaucracies. But buried deeper in that same Global Strategy Group poll is an even bigger issue: Voters think that big money feeds self-interested politicians. That’s the trap for governors. Candidates who point to their experience risk sounding like officials already caught in government’s honey pot, out of touch with the needs of regular folks. Voters just don’t seem to believe that pragmatic government works -- or that it works for them.

Scott Walker sensed that. He campaigned by telling audiences that he wasn’t popular with special interests because he broke Wisconsin’s public employee unions in what he said was an effort to help ordinary taxpayers. Similarly, Kasich argued that he had inherited a state government in deep fiscal trouble and balanced the budget by standing up to special interests. But Walker couldn’t excite voters, and neither has Kasich or any of the other governors in the race.

Outsider candidates, saying the most outrageous things, surged to early leads in the Republican race. The more outside-the-box the statement, the clearer it was that they weren’t part of business-as-usual. So it may well be that experience in governing a state has lost its electoral edge.

Voters don’t seem to crave results. They’re looking for leaders who connect to them directly, without being filtered through insider politics. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has had her own problems trying to build on her experience to make a case for competence.

And that frames a really nasty dilemma underlying the 2016 presidential campaign. No policy puzzle these days is very forgiving of missteps in delivering results, but those who can actually claim some results aren’t getting anywhere. No one really knows how voters will work out this dilemma. Yet it seems destined to shape the outcome of the election.