Plurality-Winning Governors Elected At Century-Long High Water Mark

The rate of gubernatorial candidates elected without the support of a majority of voters is at its highest level since the 1910s

rickscott10.jpgThe 2014 election cycle fell far short of the projected upheaval in the number of governors ousted from office in November.

While polls showed as many as a dozen competitive races, only two incumbents fell on Election Day – Illinois Democrat Pat Quinn and Pennsylvania Republican Tom Corbett (joining Hawaii Democrat Neil Abercrombie who lost his party’s primary).

That said, there were still many close races.

Twelve races were decided by less than five points (in Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Vermont) and six others were decided by less than 10 points (Georgia, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin).

As a result of these competitive contests, caused in party by strong showings from several third party and independent candidates, 10 winning candidates will remain in or take office in the coming weeks without the support of a majority of voters.

Plurality winners in the 2014 cycle are independent Bill Walker of Alaska (48.1 percent), Democrats John Hickenlooper of Colorado (49.3 percent), David Ige of Hawaii (49.5 percent), John Kitzhaber of Oregon (48.9 percent), Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island (40.7 percent), and Peter Shumlin of Vermont (46.4 percent), and Republicans Rick Scott of Florida (48.1 percent), Sam Brownback of Kansas (49.9 percent), Paul LePage of Maine (48.2 percent), and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts (48.4 percent).

If that sounds like a lot – it is.

For it’s just the third time in the last century that the number of governors elected with a plurality of the vote has reached double digits – all since 2002.

A Smart Politics analysis of more than 1,850 gubernatorial elections conducted since 1900 finds the rate of governors being elected without the support of a majority of voters is by far at its highest level in the 2010s than in any decade over the last 100 years.

Since 2010, a total of 24 of the 90 gubernatorial elections held across the country were won by a candidate receiving less than 50 percent of the vote, or 26.7 percent of all elections.

That number is significantly higher than any previous decade over the last century, but it has been rising.

The percentage of plurality-elected governors was 4.5 percent in the 1940s, 4.6 percent in the 1950s, 5.2 percent in the 1960s before jumping to 9.9 percent in the 1970s and holding steady at 9.8 percent in the 1980s.

That number spiked again in the 1990s to 16.0 percent and then 19.7 percent in the 2000s.

The 10 plurality winners in 2014 matches the number produced by the Election of 2010 when independent Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island (36.1 percent), Democrats Dan Malloy of Connecticut (49.5 percent), Pat Quinn of Illinois (46.8 percent), Deval Patrick of Massachusetts (48.4 percent), Mark Dayton of Minnesota (43.6 percent), John Kitzhaber of Oregon (49.3 percent), and Peter Shumlin of Vermont (49.5 percent), and Republicans Rick Scott of Florida (48.9 percent), Paul LePage of Maine (38.1 percent), and John Kasich of Ohio (49.0 percent) all failed to hit the 50 percent mark.

Kitzhaber, Scott, and LePage were the only three to win back-to-back elections without majority support from voters.

Between the 2010 and 2014 cycles, there were also a handful of plurality election winners for governor in West Virginia in 2011 (Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin), Indiana (Republican Mike Pence) and Montana (Democrat Steve Bullock) in 2012, and Virginia in 2013 (Democrat Terry McAuliffe).

The two-dozen plurality winners in just five years so far this decade is already more than the sum total across each entire decade from the 1920s through the 2000s.

Aside from 2010 and 2014, the only other cycle since 1916 in which the number of plurality winners reached double-digits was in 2002 when 12 of 36 races produced a winner without majority support (in Alabama, Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming).

Of course, one of the reasons for the increase in gubernatorial election winners failing to reach the 50 percent mark has been the rise in successful independent and third party campaigns.

Since the 1990 cycle, 9.1 percent of elections for governor have seen at least one third party or independent candidate win 10 percent or more of the vote (32 out of 351 contests).

That is nearly three times the rate from 1940 through 1989, when just 3.3 percent of contests saw a non-major party candidate reach double-digits (26 of 780 elections).

The last time the U.S. has seen this rate of governors elected without majority support was a century ago when Progressives split the Republican Party and support for the Socialist Party was peaking.

In 1912, an astounding 26 of 33 governors were elected with less than 50 percent of the vote, or 78.8 percent.

That number fell to a still elevated 17 of 31 elections in 1914 and 10 of 37 in 1916 (as well as five of nine elections in 1913 and 1915 collectively).

Percentage of Governors Elected With a Plurality of the Vote by Decade

Decade
# Plurality
# Elections
% Plurality
1900s
36
181
19.9
1910s
76
190
40.0
1920s
15
184
8.2
1930s
21
182
11.5
1940s
8
176
4.5
1950s
8
175
4.6
1960s
8
155
5.2
1970s
15
151
9.9
1980s
12
122
9.8
1990s
23
144
16.0
2000s
23
117
19.7
2010s
24
90
26.7
Total
269
1,867
14.4

Table compiled by Smart Politics.

Although some of these governors who enter (or remain in) office without the backing of the majority of voters are not necessarily doomed to a single term, the majority of them are one-and-done.

From 1900 to 2014, only 104 of the 226 non-term limited governors who entered office with only a plurality of the vote were reelected in the subsequent cycle (46.0 percent).

(That number excludes 34 plurality winners that were term-limited and nine current governors who have not yet been up for reelection).

Another 57 governors decided not to run (25.2 percent), 38 lost the next general election (16.8 percent), 13 lost their party’s nomination (5.8 percent), six resigned from office (2.7 percent), four died before taking or while in office (1.8 percent), three were impeached (1.3 percent), and one was recalled (0.4 percent).

Recent plurality winners who met one of the inglorious fates listed above include Missouri Democrat Bob Holden (lost primary in 2004), California Democrat Gray Davis (recalled in 2003), Illinois Democrat Rod Blagojevich (impeached in 2009), Alaska Republican Sarah Palin (resigned in 2009), Nevada Republican Jim Gibbons (lost primary in 2010), and Illinois Democrat Pat Quinn (lost reelection in 2014).

Political Fate of Plurality Winning Governors, 1900-2014

Outcome
#
Percent
Won
104
46.0
Did not run
57
25.2
Lost general
38
16.8
Lost nomination
13
5.8
Resigned
6
2.7
Died in/before taking office
4
1.8
Impeached
3
1.3
Recalled
1
0.4
To be determined
9
Term limited
34

Table compiled by Smart Politics.

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1 Comment on "Plurality-Winning Governors Elected At Century-Long High Water Mark"

  1. One of many reasons why we should be using Ranked Choice Voting in statewide elections.

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