Incumbency Advantage in Gubernatorial Elections

It was not much of a surprise when all three incumbent governors from the Upper Midwest (Tim Pawlenty, Mike Rounds, and Jim Doyle) won their respective re-election bids last November (at least not to Smart Politics, who projected as such). The incumbency advantage is not only a prized possession of congressman on Capitol Hill, but also state executives across the nation.

In a study of the nearly 130 gubernatorial races in the U.S. since 1998, incumbents have won 86 percent of them (69 of 80 races). Democrats, who have made inroads in winning back several governorships in recent years, have been particularly successful—with incumbents winning 27 and losing only 4. Republican incumbents have won 41 of 48 re-election bids, and independent incumbents are 1-0 during this span.

On rare occasion, a particularly unpopular governor may not seek re-election. What is usually the case, however, is that popular (Bill Owens of Colorado, 2006) and unpopular (Bob Taft of Ohio in 2006) executives are precluded from running for re-election due to term limits for their office.

In such cases, open races have proved to be very competitive in recent years. Since 1998, the party controlling the governor’s office has changed hands more than 50 percent of the time. In 49 races, a change in party has resulted in 26 elections (53 percent).

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