In 2021, gubernatorial elections continue to demonstrate flexibility of Americans' partisan preferences
National media fixation on the presidential vote obscures the willingness of millions of Democrats to vote for Republicans - and vice versa! - just not for president.
In this post I want to touch on something that irks me about the way national media outlets, and even state-level outlets to an extent, characterize the partisan orientation of the states which is based entirely on the last presidential election, often with little regard for margins and even less regard for so-called “downballot” races factoring into the typology.
The implicit idea is that presidential results are a supreme baseline for capturing the partisan identity of the states. Since there’s only one president that we entrust to “run the country” the act of electing one person evokes a sense that a state’s choice for president is a distillation of partisan identity. So I want to take this post to underscore how presidential elections and extrapresidential elections, while in closer historical alignment, still disrupt assumptions about the states and are arguably even more pivotal given the thin margins that divide the parties at the national level. Presidential results are attractive because they are an easy shorthand national journalists can lean on to quickly inform busy readers, but they also wind up oversimplifying politics into a national binary that in its own way can drive polarizing and misleading premises.
Closer alignment between presidential and extrapresidential voting prompts election analysts to conclude that divergences in how states vote between the two offices of governor and president are unexpected and/or “sea changes” in the electorate when it frequently isn’t neither of these things. This was the case after the Virginia gubernatorial election. Since Virginia had voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in the last four elections and in the 2020 election by 10 points, a 2-point Republican victory was viewed as an upset in a state “trending blue” when in reality the propensity of people to vote for specific candidates (or to vote at all) is informed by factors that are detached from what the presidential vote margin may imply. From a partisan perspective, there are two major reasons for this. One, even in our polarized era, there is more transpartisan voting happening subnationally than many national analysts lead on, though it’s important not to overstate this.
“There are millions of Republicans who will vote for Democrats and millions of Democrats who will vote for Republicans — just not for president.”
Second, an astounding 44 percent of Americans now identify as Independent with 26 percent each identify as Democrat or Republican. 45 percent of Independents, ideologically, identify as moderate, 30 percent as conservative, and 21 percent as liberal. Most Independents, however, do lean toward one party or another and there’s some reason to believe they vote in ways not too dissimilar to partisans. However, that then raises the question of how rigid the votes of partisans actually are. As of October 2021, 47 percent of Americans are Republican or Republican-leaning and 42 percent are Democrat or Democrat-leaning. This swings based on the national political climate. In 2009, the numbers were essentially flipped. So Americans are always looking to scramble the national understanding of who they are, who they affiliate with, and what they’re looking for. The polling firm Echelon Insights regularly asks registered voters to characterize their partisan voting behavior. Only 20 percent said they each vote for Democrats or Republicans “almost all of the time”; 32 percent said they vote for either party “more than” the other; 34 percent said they vote for each party equally. This suggests Americans have their preferences but many if not most appear to not be loyal to either party.
Gubernatorial election results reflect this. One of the important takeaways from looking at these national-subnational divergences in partisan preference is that certain electorates prefer presidents of one party and are open to senators and governors of other parties. The margin differences still reveal the malleability of the American voter’s preferences and those preferential impacts on the composition of the congress, the state legislatures and the union.
A recap of what the gubernatorial map looks like: With the conclusion of the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial contests, Republicans next year will hold 28 governor seats to Democrats’ 22 seats. When looking at the votes cast between the two parties in all the governor’s races over the last four years, Democrats cumulatively earned 50.43 percent of the vote to Republicans’ 49.57 percent, a difference of 0.86 percent. This compares to Republicans’ 51.62 percent to Democrats’ 48.38 percent in the 2014-2017 gubernatorial elections, or a difference of 3.24 percent.
In 11 states either party holds governor seats opposite of the state’s 2020 presidential vote. Republicans will hold 7 seats in states carried by Joe Biden — Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Arizona, Virginia and Georgia. Democrats hold 4 seats in states carried by Donald Trump — Kentucky, North Carolina, Louisiana and Kansas. This figure is down 8 seats from 2010, counting prior to the results of the 2010 midterms. Overall, today, there are the fewest number of states with divergent votes between governor and president than at any point over the last 40 years. The figure has been on a gradual decline since 1986, accelerating in 2006.
In a number of states the margins in gubernatorial and presidential contests diverge, often significantly. Of the last 50 gubernatorial contests, 28 states saw the gubernatorial candidate for either party outperformed their presidential counterpart by more than 5 points. In 12 of the 28 states, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate outperformed Joe Biden (or alternatively put, the Republican underperformed Donald Trump), winning in half of the them. To be clear, these are all based on the two-party vote share.
In the remaining 16 states, the Democratic candidate underperformed Biden, significantly so in northeastern states. While Independent voters may account for some of these margins, these numbers suggest there are millions of Republicans who will vote for Democrats and millions of Democrats who will vote for Republicans — just not for president.
There are some states like Wisconsin, Florida and Georgia where the gubernatorial margins in the most recent contests were roughly as close as they were in recent presidential races. But there are several others where that is not the case regardless of the actual outcomes.
The 2018 gubernatorial race in South Dakota, for example, was a 3-point election in the Republican’s favor, which compares to the 26-point margin by which Donald Trump carried the state in 2020. In Connecticut, a state that went for Biden by 20 points elected Democrat Ned Lemont governor in 2018 by 3 points. In fact, the last time a Democratic gubernatorial candidate was elected in Connecticut by more than 4 points was in 1986.
In Kentucky, Andy Beshear eked out a win over Republican incumbent Matt Bevin in 2019 — a state Donald Trump carried 26-points. Just glancing at the presidential contest one may come away thinking that Beshear’s election was something of a repudiation of Trump or lethargy GOP voters in very red state. Another way to look at this is that Kentucky voters entrust candidates who happen to be of two opposing parties with the responsibilities of different offices. It also may not have hurt that Beshear is the son of Bevin’s direct predecessor.
From a glance, one could be forgiven for believing that a majority, perhaps an overwhelming majority, of Kentucky voters are registered Republicans. In fact, registration data from the Kentucky Secretary of State’s office shows that as of November 2021, 45.9 percent of Kentucky voters are Democrats, 44.6 percent are Republicans, with remaining affiliating with various third parties. Post-election exit polls indicate the electorate tilted a few points more Republican and even more so in the 2020 presidential and U.S. Senate election. This means some of the outcomes in gubernatorial, Senate and presidential races have to do with a more Republican electorate but also that Beshear was able to win in part by winning some 16 percent of Republican voters. In contrast, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was re-elected in 2020. Exit polls suggest that even while the 2020 Kentucky electorate appeared to be even more Republican than in the gubernatorial race, McConnell probably still would have been re-elected had every Kentuckian vote since he won 13 percent of the Democratic vote, including 17 percent of the black vote — the highest of any Senate candidate for a Republican on record that year and likely the highest in recent cycles.
In a state like New Hampshire, something like the inverse has occurred. In 2020, New Hampshire was one of two states (the other being North Carolina) that held a gubernatorial election in which the winner was a member of the party opposite of the presidential candidate who won the state. In New Hampshire, roughly 31.9 percent of voters affiliate with Democrats and 30.7 affiliate with Republicans. The remainder are “Undeclared”. Republican incumbent Chris Sununu was re-elected by 32 points, carrying 21 percent of the Democratic vote. On the same ticket, Biden carried the state by 7 points winning over 10 percent of Republicans.
Even in states where the victorious gubernatorial and presidential candidates were of the same party — like Oklahoma, Oregon, Mississippi and Michigan — challengers in these states were able to increase their respective voting shares. In Oklahoma and Mississippi, Democratic gubernatorial candidate markedly outperformed Biden. In Oregon, the last Republican gubernatorial candidate tightened the 2018 race against incumbent governor Kate Brown. In Michigan, Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer outperformed both Biden and Hillary Clinton. In Massachusetts, the Republican governor Charlie Baker won re-election against Democratic challenger Jay Gonzalez by the same margin Biden defeated Trump in the Bay State. One poll before the election found Baker winning support among 69 percent of Democrats. Again, partisans crossing over to vote for candidates of the opposite party isn’t the only explanation here. The particular electorates of these elections matter, but increasingly so do the number of Americans who identity with neither major political party.
All said, presidential election results alone don’t tell us what we need to know about a state’s partisan orientation. Even in distinctly polarized times, a consequentially large number of voters are not committed to either party or voting in every election. The implications of that within a federation as opposed to the imaginary unitary-national system much electoral analysis is premised on is significant and uniformly overlooked across popular media. What we can learn from extrapresidential election results with regard to what motives people to vote and to what extent voters are responsive to specific issues salient at the local level can aid in drawing better conclusions from national election and issue polling.