Whatever Happened to Crossover Voting?

With increasing partisan polarization, there's little reason for a Democratic or Republican governor to head to the middle, putting governors with bipartisan appeal at risk of becoming extinct.

It's no secret that American politics these days is riven by partisan polarization. While such clashes are most obvious at the federal level, the states -- once a bastion of relative pragmatism -- are now, in many cases, subject to the same divisiveness.

Part of this polarization stems from an increase in the number of states where one party controls both the legislature and the governorship, in some cases with supermajority control. Without a minority-party check on the majority in these states, the party in power has nearly unfettered ability to impose its agenda. But there appears to be another, somewhat less remarked upon factor causing this polarization: a decrease in cross-party voting for governor.

Before this phenomenon, there were politicians like Republican Jim Douglas, who won the governorship in solidly Democratic Vermont four times over an eight-year period, clearing well over 50 percent of the vote the final three times. As Douglas was winning Vermont's governorship, he was vastly exceeding the vote of the GOP presidential candidates in his state. For instance, in 2008, Douglas won 53 percent while John McCain won 31 percent. That means that a lot of Democrats who supported Barack Obama also pulled the lever for Douglas.

Douglas' reputation for moderation and political independence made him acceptable to many of those Democratic voters. He repaid their trust by eschewing the staunch conservatism that prevailed in the national GOP. "I sued the Bush Administration several times on environmental matters and appeared before a U.S. Senate committee to whack the [Environmental Protection Agency], so Vermonters had no reason to doubt my independence," Douglas says. "I supported a minimum wage hike when a lot of my party and business leaders were opposed. I felt it was fair."

But it seems that governors like Douglas are becoming extinct. We compared the electoral patterns of the current crop of governors, those elected between 2010 and 2013, with the governors elected eight years earlier, between 2002 and 2005. We chose these parameters because the gubernatorial elections of 2002 and 2010 both resulted in large crops of new governors, many of them winning open seats. These two large classes of governors seemed similar in that they both ushered in a changing of the guard.

The statistical patterns we found were striking. Simply put, voters from one party seem to be less willing today to support a gubernatorial candidate from the other party.

First, let's look back: In the four-year cycle between 2002 and 2005, nine governors exceeded the vote share of their party's most recent presidential nominee by 15 points or more, and another five exceeded the presidential vote by between 10 and 14 points.

The biggest margins were chalked up by a mix of Republicans and Democrats. The governors with the most lopsided leads over their presidential nominees included Republican Donald Carcieri in Rhode Island (23 points), Democrat Dave Freudenthal in Wyoming (22 points), Vermont's Douglas (21 points), Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia (21 points), Republican Kenny Guinn of Nevada (18 points), Republican John Rowland of Connecticut (18 points), Democrat Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas (17 points), Republican Mitt Romney of Massachusetts (17 points) and Republican Linda Lingle of Hawaii (15 points).

For most of these governors, winning office in unfriendly territory typically required hewing to the political center. Perhaps the most notable across-the-aisle accomplishments enacted by any of these governors was Romney's bipartisan Massachusetts health-care law, which later caused him a lot of grief in the 2012 Republican presidential primary.

In Kansas, Sebelius, facing a Republican legislature, "waited until the end of the session and used her veto leverage to work out compromises on big budget bills," says University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis. "Democrats and moderate Republicans would back her. The best example is court-ordered school finance reform in 2006." And voters seemed to like this approach: Seven of the eight governors we tracked who ran for re-election between 2006 and 2009 won another term.

But if you fast-forward to the period 2010-2013, the statistical picture is markedly different.

During this more recent period, only five governors exceeded their party's presidential nominee's vote share by at least 15 points. The number winning by between 10 and 14 points rose, but only slightly, up from five to six.

The governors who won by at least 15 points more than their presidential nominees were Democrat Mike Beebe of Arkansas (25 points), Republican Chris Christie of New Jersey (19 points), Republican Rick Snyder of Michigan (17 points), Republican Dave Heineman of Nebraska (17 points) and Democrat Steve Beshear of Kentucky (15 points).

The decline in governors with crossover appeal is even sharper if you exclude two governors who are increasingly unpopular outside their own party base. They are Christie, who's been damaged by the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal, and Republican Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, who's deeply unpopular as he seeks a second term. (Corbett exceeded McCain in the Keystone State by 10 points.)

Without Christie and Corbett, there are just nine governors who can say they were elected with a significant share of their support coming from voters outside their party. That's down by one-third from its previous level of 14.

Here's another startling illustration of the decline in crossover voting: If you look at the 17 states whose governors notched the biggest crossover margins in 2002-2005, 16 now have a governor who inspired less crossover voting. The only state that saw a rise in crossover voting between then and now is New Mexico, where Republican Susana Martinez's share of the Democratic vote is slightly higher than what former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson achieved.

Of course, not all of these governors have taken a bipartisan approach -- or have needed to. In Nebraska, for instance, Heineman never had much opposition from a weak Democratic Party and governs a state where even the Democrats tend to be conservative.

Other governors, though, have put their bipartisan money where their mouth is. In Nevada, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval irked Republicans with his reluctance to pursue tax cuts supported by the GOP base.

In Missouri, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon took such a moderate approach that he sometimes seemed to inspire greater respect from Republicans than Democrats during his 2012 re-election campaign. Nixon "has appealed to Republicans," says Kenneth Warren, a Saint Louis University political scientist. "He has in particular sided with rural interests against urban interests. Until recently, he has not promoted a very clear Democratic agenda."

Beebe of Arkansas, for his part, worked with GOP lawmakers to enact a Medicaid expansion under Obamacare that had a more private-sector cast than the national model. (Under a waiver from the federal government, it applies the federal payments made available under the law to privately purchased insurance plans on the new marketplaces.) "Beebe has managed the shift to a Republican-majority legislature pretty ably," in large part because he was a centrist to begin with, says Hal Bass, a political scientist at Ouachita Baptist University.

In Michigan, Snyder has sometimes toed the GOP line, including on labor issues. But he worked hard to get the GOP legislature to accept a more traditional variety of Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. Snyder managed to "shoe-horn approval, by a couple of votes, through both chambers with almost unanimous Democratic support and his own Republicans split down the middle," says Inside Michigan Politics publisher Bill Ballenger.

But if governors like these are continuing to pursue cross-party agendas, the trendlines do not suggest much continued bipartisan politicking in the future.

As noted earlier, Christie's bipartisan credibility has quickly evaporated, and Corbett's ability to win a second term is in serious doubt. Among the other current governors who got sizable crossover support, Beebe, Heineman, Beshear, Nixon and Delaware Democrat Jack Markell are lame ducks. Only three of the strongest crossover governors are poised to win another term in 2014 -- Martinez and Sandoval, who are clear favorites, and Snyder, who has a competitive race.

Even if Martinez, Sandoval and Snyder all win, they will represent the tail end of a once-strong group of governors who were open to a bipartisan approach.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.