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Eye On Candidates
November 19, 2015

Why Are Republican Governors Struggling?

The Republican Party has traditionally favored governors (sitting or former) as presidential nominees, with vice presidents also getting significant consideration. In the past 50 years the Republican Party nominated exactly three presidential candidates who hadn’t been either a governor or vice president, all three of whom were crushed in the general election. Setting aside incumbent presidents, every Republican nominee who was either a governor or vice president won.

So we note with some interest that the first three candidates to drop out of the Republican field in 2016 are governors, all of them accomplished and with views that would seem attractive to the party’s base, while the remaining governors seem to be struggling to varying degrees. Alex Roarty of National Journal, in an illuminating piece, thinks he may have the answer:

Why Governors Are Struggling in the 2016 Race

In a primary that has de­fied pro­gnost­ic­a­tion, one of the biggest sur­prises yet has been the fail­ure of any Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor, former or cur­rent, to break through to the top of the field. Each of them has dropped either to the lower rungs of the polls or out of the race en­tirely—a fact un­der­scored Tues­day when Louisi­ana Gov. Bobby Jin­dal un­ce­re­mo­ni­ously ended his strug­gling can­did­acy.

He was the third ma­jor Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate to quit the race, join­ing former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and cur­rent Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er. And they fared only mar­gin­ally worse than the three vi­able gov­ernors who re­main—Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich—each of whom has run a dis­ap­point­ing cam­paign that has made them, for the time be­ing, long shots.

There are also three former governors still in the race who don’t, in Roarty’s view at least, even qualify as long shots: Jim Gilmore of Virginia, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, and George Pataki of New York.

Of those six remaining governors, all but Bush have struggled to qualify for the main debate stage or, in some cases, the secondary stage for low-polling candidates.

So why has such a tra­di­tion­al step­ping stone to the pres­id­ency proven so in­ad­equate now? The reas­on, seni­or Re­pub­lic­an strategists say, lies in a fun­da­ment­al change with­in an angry Re­pub­lic­an elect­or­ate and a host of can­did­ates—Don­ald Trump, Ben Car­son, Marco Ru­bio, and Ted Cruz—whose back­ground and tal­ents are bet­ter suited to take ad­vant­age. The usu­al ad­vant­ages en­joyed by gov­ernors run­ning for the White House, such as a re­cord of ac­com­plish­ments or status as a Wash­ing­ton out­sider, simply no longer rate.

“We are in­to an age where it seems like your abil­ity to get your­self on cable news and be a rock star in a real­ity-TV era mat­ters more than what you’ve ac­com­plished in a state like Texas or New Jer­sey or Flor­ida,” said Henry Bar­bour, a com­mit­tee­man for the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee and an in­form­al ad­viser to Rick Perry’s cam­paign. “It’s tough, and it’s not good, but it is real­ity. And cam­paigns have to deal with what the voters are look­ing for.”

In such an environment, what someone has accomplished in office has little appeal to many primary voters, and may even be a negative simply for the fact of having held office:

It’s not as if [Bush, Christie and Kasich], or the three can­did­ates who have left the race, have noth­ing to talk about: Walk­er waged a high-pro­file fight to neu­ter uni­ons in Wis­con­sin, Perry led the loud and proud con­ser­vat­ive state in the coun­try for more than a dec­ade, and Bush—of­ten de­rided by act­iv­ists as a squish—was only re­cently con­sidered the coun­try’s most con­ser­vat­ive gov­ernor. Jin­dal cut spend­ing, while Kasich and Christie have led con­ser­vat­ive re­form in states with a strong Demo­crat­ic pres­ence.

Voters just didn’t care—in part, be­cause their dis­gust with the polit­ic­al sys­tem has made them mis­trust­ful of any­thing an elec­ted of­fi­cial says. Wes An­der­son, a top strategist and poll­ster for the Jin­dal cam­paign, said fo­cus groups and sur­veys con­duc­ted by the cam­paign showed that voters liked the in­di­vidu­al parts of Jin­dal’s re­cord. They just re­flex­ively didn’t be­lieve him when he talked about it.

“In this very strange and con­vo­luted elec­tion cycle, the Re­pub­lic­an primary voters have said, ‘If you’re in elec­ted of­fice, then I dis­count what you’re say­ing,’” said An­der­son.

Roarty’s piece helps to explain some of the struggles of the governors in the race, although these candidates would still have faced serious challenges regardless of the factors described here. Looking just at the three who have dropped out, it’s almost certain Perry would still have struggled to overcome his 2012 campaign’s legacy; Jindal would have still been a little-known governor seeking the votes of social conservatives, who have an abundance of choices in 2016; and Walker would still have been a relatively bland speaker serving as his own political consultant.

The remaining governors have their own issues as well, but it seems likely that their shortcomings are magnified by the television-driven dynamic favoring the non-governors in the race, whose own problems are diminished by the dynamic. So long as this continues, it seems likely the Republicans will nominate someone in 2016 who does not have the executive experience that historically has meant success.