The former governor factor

October 13, 2011

If you’re thinking the jumbled Republican presidential field does not matter because whomever gets the nomination can’t win – think again. A Republican could well take the White House in 2012.

At this point in the 1992 election cycle, the elder George Bush held an 89 a 66 percent approval rating (update: on October 13, 1991, according to Gallup data on the Roper Center website). Back then, Democratic figures including Mario Cuomo did not enter the 1992 race because they thought the elder Bush was “unbeatable” – just as today many Republicans are not entering the race, thinking Obama is unbeatable.

But Bush was defeated by Bill Clinton, who, a year before his victory, was a low-name-recognition outsider with personal baggage.

Clinton beat a popular incumbent with a fantastic approval rating. For the 2012 election, Barack Obama is just as vulnerable as the elder Bush, if not even more so. Obama currently has an approval rating of 23 percent. 40 percent (update: as of October 13-15, 2011, according to Gallup).

Upsets aren’t unusual. At this point in the 2008 election cycle, Hillary Clinton was viewed as having an insurmountable lead for the Democratic nomination. At this stage in 2004, John Kerry was thought to be running a vanity candidacy. By Election Day, a small swing in the Ohio count would have put Kerry into the White House. As for Ronald Reagan, at this point in the 1980 election cycle, he was the favorite to win the Republican nomination, but incumbent Jimmy Carter was expected to retain his post in the general election. Reagan ended up taking 44 states.

Carter had a rocky presidency, but the power of incumbency was thought to be too great for Reagan to overcome. Obama, despite having a rocky presidency, is expected by many to be reelected on the basis of incumbency. Yet two of the last five incumbents to stand for reelection were defeated. Obama could make it three of the last six.

Of the Republican field, those who have the best chance to unseat Obama are Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman, for a simple reason – governorship.

Four of the last six presidents were governors before ascending to the White House: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. (The elder George Bush had been vice-president, while Obama had been a senator.)

Of the most recent six presidents, party doesn’t tell much, since three were Democrats and three Republicans. Other major distinctions don’t tell much either. Two were former members of Congress (Obama and the elder Bush). Two were former active-duty military (Carter and the elder Bush). One had held high federal government posts (the elder Bush had been CIA director and United Nations ambassador). Two had run a small business (Carter and the elder Bush). One had run a large business (the younger Bush). There’s no other factor among the most recent six presidents that leaps out like governor status.

Right now Romney seems to be the frontrunner, which, of course, is a mixed blessing. His aura of experience and reasonableness could prove quite appealing to voters.

Perry continues to have the potential to light a populist fire. But don’t sell Huntsman short because he is low in the polls – Obama had been at that point, too. But Obama took the White House in part on the strength of being Not Just Another Politician. Of all the 2012 candidates, Huntsman is the one who is Not Just Another Politician.

So why are governors so appealing as presidential contenders? Running a statehouse is the closest thing to running the White House. It’s a real job with executive authority, unlike being in Congress, where windbag behavior dominates. Americans seem to think more fondly of state governments than of the federal government, rightly or wrongly viewing states as better-run. Governors benefit from state finances containing a hefty share of bookkeeping illusion, while the fiscal recklessness of the Washington establishment cannot be disguised. And many widely admired former presidents – Reagan, FDR, Woodrow Wilson – were governors first.

Ideally, a presidential candidate is a former, not current, governor. That conveys the prestige of governorship, while leaving the candidate not responsible for whatever’s going wrong in his state right now. Romney and Huntsman can argue that they left Massachusetts and Utah in fine shape. Perry, still in office, must shoulder some blame for current defects of Texas public schools and health care.

So don’t assume Obama is a shoe-in for reelection. And of the Republican field, keep your eyes on Romney and Huntsman. They are the former governors who seek the White House, and a former governor is a fine thing to be.

Update: The original version of this column listed incorrect statistics for George H.W. Bush’s October 1991 approval rating and Barack Obama’s current approval rating.

Photo: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets people in the crowd as he arrives for the third debate between US Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) and US Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain (R-AZ) at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, October 15, 2008. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton; Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman during a break in a debate with other Republican presidential hopefuls at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, October 11, 2011. REUTERS/Scott Eells/POOL


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Seriously, an approval rating of 23 percent? Let me click on that, and…nope, that’s how many “strongly approve”. Yeesh, that’s a pretty basic error.

Posted by pseudoprime | Report as abusive

Rasmussen Reports’ polling on Obama’s “strongly approve” rating is a poor choice of source for “Obama’s approval rating” for several reasons.

First, there is a significant difference between “approve” and “strongly approve”; the figure you cited for George HW Bush is an “approve” rating. Second, each pollster uses different methodology and comparing a Gallup poll to a Rasmussen poll on its face is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Third, Rasmussen is a proudly right-leaning outfit that Nate Silver has repeatedly shown to have a statistically significant conservative bias.

While I don’t think Gallup is the gold standard of polling outfits, nor the presidential approval rating as significant as, say, economic metrics or polls on a state-by-state level, a fairer comparison would be to use the current Gallup weekly average, which has Obama at 40%.

Posted by andrewjbeaton | Report as abusive


While I agree with most of your points in this post… I’m a bit confused. Who would think Obama is ‘untouchable’ at this point?! Perhaps I’ve just been naive about this or something, but you already pointed out the approval rating issue, and there are plenty of other indicators that show he may be in trouble. I think the far more telling poll is Gallup’s current Generic Ballot poll, in which Obama loses to a faceless Republican candidate 46% to 38%. Anyway, you must know something I don’t in order to be posting this.

In general, I agree with you about former governors being in the best position to gain traction. However, I do have to disagree that Perry is among those who have the ‘best chance to unseat Obama’, for a simple reason – the intellect factor. I’m sorry (and it’s really not my intention to be unkind here), but with all due respect, he is one of the stupidest people to run for president in a long time. Look, in another year, maybe he’d have a great chance. But we’re talking about at least 6 whole months of toe-to-toe debates with Barack Obama. It will take more than a bumbling Texas governor who brags about sheer numbers while hiding from percentage statistics (one of the lowest forms of political-statistical deception) to be able to get past Obama. The President is very intelligent, a great debator. I’m sorry, but regardless of your views or opinions about Perry, he couldn’t possible survive multiple debates with the President. Obama would run circles around Perry, who even struggles to defend himself against lowly attacks from the likes of Bachmann and Santorum. Not this year, Rick Perry.

Posted by crichey | Report as abusive

With a well run campaign, Bozo the Clown should be able to beat Obama, because Obama now has a record, and it is abysmal.

In 2008 he campaigned on ideals and against Bush. In 2012 he has to defend ethical scandals, the myriad of Bush policies that he promised to end and didn’t, and the economy, which is stagnant and in poor shape.

Posted by tomjedrz | Report as abusive

“If you’re thinking the jumbled Republican presidential field does not matter because whomever gets the nomination can’t win – think again”

No offense, but there is no insight here. The consensus view is that whoever gets the Republican nomination will win.

When the economy sucks, the president takes the blame. Rightly or wrongly, that is how it works.

Posted by Schmoe | Report as abusive

For an excellent commentary on this, see: -clueless-political-column-ever-i-think- this-easterbrook-dude-has-the-journalist ic-equivalent-of-tenure/#comments

Posted by rp_OR | Report as abusive

I enjoy your articles Mr Easterbrook, while certainly not agreeing with all of them. In this case a well written piece of linear logic which totally skirts the entirely disgruntled mood of a large segment of the moderate American Voters.

“Ideally, a presidential candidate is a former, not current, governor”

Absolutely, if we want another rich status quo white guy with a country club membership and a pile of I.O.U.s he’s going to have to pay back to special interests when and if elected.

President Obama was a non-linear choice whom many held out great hope for, as yet unfulfilled. Lots of hope, no change. Rhetoric aside, we are still fighting multiple un-winnable wars, our economy remains in the dumpster, and debt is still piling up with little to nothing to show for it.

As a small businessman plying the seas of commerce with a tight ship and a good crew, I suggest we look outside of the box for a new Pirate-In-Chief. Someone say, with some business and turn around experience. Even a real problem solver perhaps?

Herman Cain 2012…yes, he scares a lot of people. Common sense has a way of doing that.

Posted by CaptnCrunch | Report as abusive

Good lord Easterbrook, you can’t even get a basic pundit column right!!!

This time, it’s not me doing the fisking, it’s poor Andrew Gelman who seems to have discovered you for the first time and is not happy about it. -clueless-political-column-ever-i-think- this-easterbrook-dude-has-the-journalist ic-equivalent-of-tenure

Posted by Sprizouse | Report as abusive

This column is full of gross, basic factual errors.

Does anyone fact-check this man?

1. It’s not true that at this point in the 1992 election cycle, the elder George Bush held an 89 percent approval rating. It was 66 percent.

2. It’s not true that Obama currently has an approval rating of 23 percent. It’s 38%.

Does Easterbrook or anyone responsible for editing him know how to use Google?

What a waste of electrons.

Posted by ausfaller | Report as abusive

Your facts are all wrong, Easterbrook.

This is bad, even for you. -clueless-political-column-ever-i-think- this-easterbrook-dude-has-the-journalist ic-equivalent-of-tenure

Posted by DougJBalloon | Report as abusive

Here’s a little taste of Gelman (linked to by Sprizouse above), who really slices and dices this bit of obvious Huntsman propaganda:

1. It’s not true that at this point in the 1992 election cycle, the elder George Bush held an 89 percent approval rating.

2. It’s not true that Obama currently has an approval rating of 23 percent.

Now let’s move from Easterbrookworld to reality.

1. According to Gallup, on 13 Oct 1991, George H. W. Bush’s ratings (data from the Roper Center) were 66% approve, 28% disapprove, 7% no opinion (not adding to exactly 100% due to roundoff error, I assume).

2. Gallup estimates Obama’s job approval as of 11 Oct 2011 as 38%.

So where did Easterbrook get his numbers? 89% was George H. W. Bush’s highest approval rate ever, and it was at the beginning of March 1991. As for Obama’s 23%, this comes from a Rasmussen report that Easterbrook linked to but misread: 28% “strongly approve” of Obama’s job performance but about 45% approve in total, according to Rasmussen’s own graph.

Stick to football, Gregg.

Posted by supak | Report as abusive

The only primary that Huntsman could win would be one in which the other side exclusively got to vote for the candidate. I found the comment that Obama wasn’t a sure bet for re-election to be pretty funny. It shouldn’t be news even to the most hardcore cheerleaders in the administration. There is time between now and then so who knows. Well we do know that Huntsman won’t be on the ballot in November of next year.

I don’t know who is advising the President these days, but most of his speeches, of late, seem to have a disconnect between him and the fact that he is the President. He talks as if he is an outsider instead of the establishment.

Posted by AustinG | Report as abusive