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Why Republicans Have A Built-In Advantage In Gubernatorial Races

CREDIT: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty
CREDIT: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

When Ohio State hosts arch-rival Michigan in college football this year, the Buckeyes’ home crowd will provide a significant boost. Next year, when Ohio State must travel to Ann Arbor, it will be Michigan who enjoys the home-field advantage. Imagine the outrage among UM alums, though, if the Big Ten instituted a new rule that, henceforth, every future matchup would be played in Ohio. Even unaffiliated observers would rightly argue that such a setup would be eminently biased against Michigan.

Yet, in politics, every four years the vast majority of governor’s races take place in front of a Republican crowd.

Of the 50 states, just nine states hold their gubernatorial elections during presidential (2012, 2008, etc.) years. On the other hand, 34 hold their elections only in midterm (2014, 2010, etc.) years. Five states vote in off-year (odd-numbered, e.g. 2011 or 2013) elections, and two other states, New Hampshire and Vermont, hold gubernatorial elections every two years rather than four.

As political observers will tell you, the makeup of the voting electorate in presidential years is quite different than during midterm elections. And that difference is what ultimately disadvantages many Democratic gubernatorial candidates.

According to the 2012 CNN exit poll to the 2014 CNN exit poll, here’s how the electorate changed this year:

GENDER:

  • 2012: Men made up 47 percent of the electorate.
  • 2014: Men made up 49 percent of the electorate.

AGE:

  • 2012: Voters aged 18–29 made up 19 percent of the electorate. Voters 65 and older were 16 percent.
  • 2014: Voters aged 18–29 made up 13 percent of the electorate. Voters 65 and older were 22 percent.

RACE:

  • 2012: Whites made up 72 percent of the electorate, while African Americans and Latinos combined made up 23 percent.
  • 2014: Whites made up 75 percent of the electorate, while African Americans and Latinos combined made up 20 percent.

INCOME:

  • 2012: Voters who made less than $50k per year comprised 41 percent of the electorate. Those making $100k or more were 28 percent.
  • 2014: Voters who made less than $50k per year comprised 36 percent of the electorate. Those making $100k or more were 30 percent.

The electorate this year was significantly whiter, older, richer, and more male than in 2012. In other words, the midterm electorate tends to have more Republican voters, while the presidential electorate tends to have more Democratic voters.

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This means that, for Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls in Florida or Ohio or Wisconsin or elsewhere, every election is played on the opponents’ turf. The governor of these states, along with 36 others, is decided with a Republican-leaning midterm electorate.

Any athlete will tell you that playing on the road is always more difficult than playing at home. Republicans, playing at home this year, not only prevailed in many gubernatorial races, but in many they weren’t expected to win. The GOP picked up control in Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Arkansas, for example. They held on for victory in a half-dozen states that all looked like they could flip, including Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

No matter what year it is, Republicans would be favored to win the governor’s mansion in Alabama, while Democrats would be expected to prevail in New York. But if Florida had voted for its governor in 2012 instead of 2014, is there any chance Gov. Rick Scott (R) would have eked out a one-point victory? Would Bruce Rauner (R) have won in Illinois, Barack Obama’s home state, last cycle?

This is an imbalance that only affects Democrats running for governor in most states, not those running for the House or Senate. After all, both houses of Congress hold elections in midterm and presidential years. Because congressmen serve two-year terms and senators serve six-year terms, each must alternate between facing the electorate in midterm years and presidential years.

If more states held their gubernatorial elections in presidential years, or if more states gave their governors a 2- or 6-year terms, Democrats would get to play at home as well. As is, Republicans enjoyed a systemic bias this year that helped them prevail in many gubernatorial elections.