The State of the Battleground States

Elections in these pivotal states may hinge on national issues.

Editorial cartoon satirizing Congress.
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Looking forward to fall’s elections, many analysts have recently focused on the Senate. Given that the Democrats’ majority in that chamber is at risk this comes as no surprise. But as the New York Times pointed out yesterday, not all of 2014’s electoral action will happen at the national level.

Some of the partisan sparring is sure to occur in the four gubernatorial contests that are taking place this year in “Northern industrial states whose white working-class voters were once solidly Democratic, but are now up for grabs.” These “Rust Belt” states (Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio) voted for Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012. Delving a bit deeper, in 2012, Obama earned more than his national vote share in three of the four states (Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania). 

But in 2010, all four states supported Republican candidates for governor. Further, during that same cycle, three of the four states (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio) sent Republicans (Ron Johnson, Pat Toomey, and Rob Portman) to the U.S. Senate.  

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.

And while Michigan did not have Senate race in 2010, the Great Lakes State re-elected Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow in 2012. Of course, these results are substantially explained by the voters who turned out (and who stayed home) in these various elections. Still, as these states’ values on the Cook Partisan Index suggest, they are part of the 2014 political battleground (Ohio R+1; Pennsylvania D+1; Wisconsin D+2; and Michigan D+4).

This brings us to the Republican governors standing for re-election (Michigan’s Rick Synder, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett and Ohio’s John Kasich) in what is clearly a “mixed” political environment when one considers the current state of the “seven metrics to watch.” As Charlie Cook has explained: 

As much as anything, midterm elections tend to be a referendum on the incumbent president. When voters are unhappy, they tend to vote to punish the president’s party’s candidates. If voters are satisfied, they generally find some other basis on which to decide their vote. It may be unfair, but that’s the way it is.

At the moment, Obama’s approval rating is not that impressive. And this is why Cook suggests that “Democratic candidates [should work] to ensure that the focal point of their campaigns is something other than Obama.”

But the question remains: Even if these factors are important in this year’s Senate races, will any of it matter in the gubernatorial contests? In sum, are politics (namely, incumbent evaluations and economic considerations) local or are they national?

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.

According to some research performed by political scientist Adam Brown, “voters actually divide responsibility for economic conditions in a partisan manner, preferring to blame officials from the opposing party when problems arise.” Additionally, “the effect of state economics on gubernatorial approval varies among partisan subgroups—but only when the president and the governor belong to different parties.” In other words, it appears that national evaluations of the president among the partisans in these states are largely what will matter in November.

And on this score, President Obama and the Democratic gubernatorial candidates should probably start preparing for a tough fight. Why? Because President Obama’s 2013 approval rating in the three of these four states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin) was below his national average. Only in Michigan was it higher. Interestingly, however, Corbett is not one of the incumbents, if you were solely focused on the candidates and the state dynamics, you’d expect would be able to survive this cycle. In fact, if I were looking only at the “local” factors in the races, I would argue that Corbett is the one most likely to lose.

Obviously, we have many months to go to assess whether national or local factors play the more dominant role in these elections’ outcomes, but generally speaking, it seems more than likely that if the national vote falls towards the GOP (as many are forecasting), then so, too, will these contests.

So much for a “mixed” electoral cycle. Partisanship remains the primary force in politics.