For decades, governors dominated presidential politics. This year, they’ve turned out to be duds.
On Wednesday, Montana Governor Steve Bullock will officially miss the cutoff for qualifying for the next round of Democratic debates in September, falling short both in terms of polling and numbers of donors. Last week, Washington Governor Jay Inslee and former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper dropped out of the race before suffering the same fate.
None of the three were exactly household names before the race began, but their failures follow the lack of success during the last presidential cycle by no fewer than ten current or former governors, including such putative heavy hitters on the Republican side as Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. “Governors have had a pretty good track record,” says Columbia University political scientist Justin Phillips, “but that all seems to have vanished.”
It wasn’t always this way. Between 1976 and 2004, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush—governors all—combined to win seven out of eight presidential elections. Since that time, only one governor (Mitt Romney of Massachusetts) has gotten as far as winning a major-party nomination.
Governors face several handicaps in the current political climate. By the nature of the jobs they hold, which involve bread-and-butter government operations such as building roads and funding schools, governors remain less ideological and more pragmatic as a group than their rivals in legislative roles. Freezing in-state tuition is never going to sound as sexy as offering free tuition.
“The politics that governors engage in, or have to engage in, in order to succeed is not what’s appealing right now in our combative, polarized politics,” says Phillips, co-author of The Power of American Governors. In that book, Phillips and UC San Diego political scientist Thad Kousser show that governors may sometimes have to sign bills regarding hot-button issues such as abortion, Bible studies, or restrictions on transgender bathroom use, but they almost never raise such matters themselves.
That said, Inslee devoted his entire presidential campaign to the hot-button issue of the climate crisis, and highlighted his liberal policymaking in the governor’s mansion, including the creation of a public health insurance option. So there’s something more going on than just pragmatism not playing well in a polarized age.
Governors sit outside the swim of national issues obsessing not just Washington players but cable news and social media. Their remove from the center of the partisan storm limits their exposure. It also hampers their fundraising, especially on the Democratic side, where big donors are often motivated by a limited set of issues. In a politics that plays out nationally, chief executives in the states can find themselves permanently outside the conversation.
Attempts to capitalize on national issues can fall flat. Last year, Hickenlooper signed an executive order blocking any state agencies or funds from being used in support of President Trump’s policy of separating children from their immigrant parents. Asked at a news conference whether any state money was being used for that purpose, Hickenlooper had to concede, “Not to my knowledge.”
Governors simply have less flexibility, legally or in terms of logistics. “When senators are out of state, no one misses them,” says Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “When governors are out of state, it is noticed and they are often criticized. Heaven help them if a crisis occurs in the state while they are visiting the Iowa State Fair.” Most important, governors are at a severe fundraising disadvantage. While a senator such as Elizabeth Warren can kick-start her own presidential campaign by transferring $10.4 million from her Senate campaign account, governors don’t have the legal leeway to shift funds from their state accounts to a federal race.
None of the governors in the current field managed to hit the kind of partisan notes that might have distinguished them in a two-dozen-candidate field. Inslee brought additional attention to his centerpiece issue of climate change, but with any number of Green New Deal proposals floating around, he wasn’t able to claim it as his exclusive turf. More critically, he wasn’t an enduring figure within politics, known to a national audience. It’s hard in the modern age to start a presidential run from scratch, which is surprisingly the position governors find themselves in.
Bullock and Hickenlooper each sought to market their comparative centrism as a strength. They got no traction presenting themselves as alternatives to more progressive challengers or, for that matter, to the centrist standard-bearer, former Vice President Joe Biden. For the time being, at least, Biden has the support of more moderate Democrats pretty well sewn up.
According to Morning Consult, the most popular governors in the country are all Republicans in the otherwise blue states of Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Moderation plays well at home, but gains them nothing on the national stage, as Maryland’s Larry Hogan found when he floated the idea of a primary challenge against Trump. In just the few days since launching his GOP bid, combative former Representative Joe Walsh seems to have garnered more media attention than the patrician protest campaign being pursued by William Weld, the moderate former governor of Massachusetts.
As late as February 2016, Gallup found that Americans viewed being a governor as the best preparation for the presidency, with 72 percent of respondents agreeing it was “good” or “excellent” training for the job. That year, of course, Donald Trump won the election, becoming the first president in U.S. history with no prior experience in government or the military. The outsider message peddled by governors such as Chris Christie and Scott Walker was no match for Trump’s shake-things-up shtick.
The country has to be in a certain mood to turn to a governor. Governors got nowhere in the early days of national politics, in part because the focus was on creating a national politics and culture. During the centennial year of 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes became the first sitting governor elected to the White House (albeit barely, while losing the popular vote), in the wake of the scandal-plagued Grant administration. He ushered in an era of governors with “clean hands,” reformers who promised to change the culture in Washington, including Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, and Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, notes Saladin Ambar, author of How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency.
Governors went out of style during the Cold War, when the nation craved foreign-policy experience from the likes of military hero Dwight D. Eisenhower and fellow World War II vets and old Washington hands such as John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon.
Following Vietnam and Nixon’s downfall and disgrace with Watergate, the country was again ready to elevate a Washington outsider. Jimmy Carter’s promise of “a government as good as its people,” followed by Reagan’s complaint that Washington was the problem, not the solution, ushered in the recent era of gubernatorial dominance of the White House.
Both Clinton and the second Bush sought to shift their parties to the center. In Clinton’s case, wanting to show that Democrats could be tough on crime, he returned home to Arkansas from the campaign trail in 1992 to preside over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a condemned killer so brain-damaged that he saved the dessert from his last meal “for later.” Bush branded himself a “compassionate conservative,” touting his record working with Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock and other Texas Democrats.
That kind of message no longer sells. That was apparent during Romney’s campaign, when he sought to distance himself from his own signature achievement as governor, a health care plan that served as model for the Affordable Care Act. “Romney had to get more conservative for his presidential run,” says Phillips, the Columbia professor. “That suggests governors are aware of this dynamic, that there’s not a big market for pragmatic, relatively moderate politics.”