President Obama was surely disappointed to see Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland lose his race for reelection. The two men are close, with Strickland rumored to have been a contender for the 2008 vice presidential nod. And Obama traveled to Cleveland during the campaign's waning days for a rally. To hear some folks tell it, he might be concerned that the loss will endanger his own chances in 2012.
The Toledo Blade reported that John Kasich's win could spell trouble for Obama. The wire service, AFP, saw a wider trend across the country. While losses would mean redistricting on the state level, that was just the start: "But more worryingly for President Barack Obama and the Democrats, big governor losses often represent a change in the landscape at state level that means one party's political machine has usurped another." Indeed, Republicans had a good night on the gubernatorial circuit, snagging the executive mansion in several swing states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Mexico, and Iowa, in addition to Ohio. The few governorships Democrats took over Tuesday—in California, Hawaii, and Vermont—were in states that voted for both Kerry and Obama.
So does that mean Obama is sunk? Actually, probably not at all. As Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, pointed out in 2002, it's become a truism that governors are an important (though not crucial) asset for any presidential campaign. The only problem with that morsel of wisdom is there isn't any data for it. (You can read the first page of Abramowitz's paper here, but if you want the other two pages, you'll need a JSTOR subscription.)
In fact, Abramowitz's conclusion? Looking at the entire country, "it appears that party control of the governorship had no impact on the outcomes of the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections in the states." Well, OK. But what about battleground states, places like Ohio and Pennsylvania? Surely those are places where marginal effort actually does make a difference. But in fact, "Bill Clinton and Al Gore actually did slightly worse in battleground states with Democratic governors than in battleground states with Republican governors."
A quick look at the 2004 and 2008 results seems to bear out the idea that there's not much correlation. Two states that John Kerry lost in 2004 but Obama won in 2008—Colorado and Ohio—flipped their governorships from Republican to Democrat. Indiana, a state Obama picked up but Kerry didn't, actually switched from a Democrat to a Republican. And six crucial states that Obama managed to win that Kerry hadn't—including Florida, Virginia, Nevada, and North Carolina—didn't see any gubernatorial change at all.
John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, says he still thinks there's an impact—but it's just less direct than commonly thought. "My view, and the view of many analysts, would be that governors have these organizational impacts, but it might be hard to tell their efforts from the overall campaign," he says. "If you think about what Obama did in Ohio in 2008, that really would not have been possible without a strong state party and the cooperation of Gov. Strickland." When it comes down to it, he says, no one can marshal more resources than the man in the governor's chair, even if he's not popular among voters.
But Abramowitz told me he hasn't revisited his research since 2002, and he'd be surprised to see any real impact. "People talk about how governors have an organization," he says. "But look, Obama created his own organization. Obama had an effect on governors' races! The presidential race is so high profile, there's so much information about it, that especially in these battleground states, I can't believe there's anything the governor can do."
Of course, the Republican wins are still bad news for Democrats. The flip side of all this is that it works the same way for Republicans: their new-found takeovers offer advantages on the state-policymaking level, but they probably won't be the special ingredient that helps to elect a President Christie or President Palin or President Rubio or President Barbour in November 2012.
And there are three other national ramifications. First, the redistricting that AFP dismissed should be a serious worry for them: where Republicans control statehouses and governorships, several of which they added Tuesday night, they can redraw electoral lines to create districts more favorable to GOP candidates. But that's a congressional worry. The number of electoral votes, and the composition of the electorate, will still be the same, regardless of how you carve them up.
Second, the considerable sums Democrats spent in the state are lost. There's so shame in spending money in a losing cause—especially in a close one. But you need to have a reason. In his 2002 paper, Abramowitz noted that "recent presidents, including George W. Bush, have devoted considerable time and effort to raising money and campaigning for their party's gubernatorial candidates." Could that money have been more productively spent saving beleaguered House candidates in Ohio, Virginia, and Pennsylvania? After all, the representatives those states send to Washington have a tangible effect on Obama's, and the Democratic Party's, national-policy success—unlike governors.
Finally, the bad luck in the battlegrounds may also be an augur for Obama. Naturally, if the electorate in a state like Ohio is truly shifting, it could be very bad news for him. A New York Times poll last week found that "the Obama coalition was fraying." To win reelection, he'll need to reassemble that coalition. But the 2012 elections are just as far away as the 2008 elections seem today: clearly, voter opinions can change radically.
That might be cold comfort for Buckeye State Dems skeptical of Kasich's leadership. On the national level, however, the losses may leave Obama disappointed—but they needn't leave him despairing.