Laramie–The decision by Governor Dave Freudenthal not to seek a third term has dramatically changed the contest for the state’s chief executive.  The Cheyenne Tribune-Eagle reported the three announced Republican candidates saying “Freudenthal’s departure from the gubernatorial race does not affect their campaigns.”  Yet the governor was the 800-pound gorilla in the room.  His exit cannot help but alter the electoral landscape, adding to the Democrats’ challenges and the Republicans’ advantages.

Studies of voters’ choices in gubernatorial elections show job performance is the most influential factor when the incumbent seeks re-election.  Other factors usually associated with a voter’s decision—such as political party identification, ideological identification, and assessment of economic performance—continue to affect voters’ decisions.  But evaluation of the incumbent trumps all other factors as voters are choosing between an incumbent governor and the challenger of the other party.

Wyoming gubernatorial elections illustrate this pattern in voter decision-making.  The University of Wyoming’s biennial election survey asks respondents to rate the job performance of the governor and other elected officials as “excellent,” “good,” “fair,” or “poor.”  In 2006, 86% of voters rating Freudenthal’s performance as governor as “excellent” or “good” cast their ballots for him while 59% of voters rating the governor’s performance as “fair” or “poor” cast their ballots for his Republican challenger, Ray Hunkins.  More significantly, this relationship between evaluation of job performance and vote choice holds when party identification is controlled:  93% of independents and 68% of Republicans rating the governor’s job performance favorably voted for Freudenthal.  Similar patterns were evident in 1990 and 1998, when Governors Mike Sullivan and Jim Geringer were re-elected.

Unquestionably,  Freudenthal has been popular in office.  During his term in office, polls from various sources have shown approval ratings ranging from around 65% to more than 80%.  Recently there have been news reports of a poll by the Republican Party showing the governor maintaining these high approval ratings.  Thus, Freudenthal would have had the upper hand in the campaign and likely would have succeeded in being re-elected to a third term.

The governor’s exit creates an “open seat” election that presents several challenges to Democratic candidates.  First, voters use different cues for their decisions when an incumbent is not in the race.  Foremost among these is party identification.  Even in high profile campaigns such as those for governor, many voters do not learn the specifics of candidates’ issues positions but instead rely on the prominent voting cue of political party.  This is not an unreasonable strategy, as political party affiliation is usually a good indicator of each candidate’s policy preferences and general perspective of the role of government in society.  Even when voters do make an effort to compare the candidates’ positions on issues, their relative assessments of the candidates are shaded by their partisan predispositions.

Obviously, Republican candidates hold the advantage when political party is the dominant voting cue. Indicators that Wyoming is a “red state” are numerous:

  • Republicans hold a 45%-to-23% advantage over Democrats in party identification within the electorate (UW’s 2008 election survey);
  • Republicans hold a 60%-to-25% advantage over Democrats in voter registration (Secretary of State’s office, 1 March 2010);
  • Republicans have won three-fourths of the elections for the five state executive offices over the past 40 years;
  • Republican presidential candidates have carried the state in eleven consecutive elections;
  • No Wyoming Democrat has won a congressional election since Teno Roncalio retired in 1978.

The silver lining for Democrats is that the governorship is the only statewide office that Republicans have not won regularly.

A second challenge for Democratic gubernatorial candidates is that their party controls the White House.  The influence of presidential popularity on campaigns is much greater in congressional elections than in gubernatorial elections, but there is an effect nonetheless.  And that effect is greater when an incumbent is not seeking re-election.

Over the past six decades, nine men have been elected governor of Wyoming.  Eight of the nine were first elected when the other political party controlled the presidency, usually in a year when the president was unpopular.  The lone exception was Republican Milward Simpson, who won the governorship in 1954 with Dwight Eisenhower in the White House.  Against this backdrop, the 2010 election sets up well for the eventual Republican nominee: A compilation of Gallup Polls conducted during 2009 showed President Obama having a 42% approval rating in Wyoming, his lowest among the 50 states.

Added to these is a third challenge for Democratic candidates: Republicans have been given a significant head start on the campaign.  Three Republican candidates—Matt Mead, Rita Meyer, and Ron Micheli—have had campaigns up and running for some time, including websites through which campaign contributions are solicited; Colin Simpson formed an exploratory committee that laid the foundation of his campaign organization.  Democrats, on the other hand, were left waiting to see whether  Freudenthal would seek re-election.  While the governor’s desire to avoid appearing during the Legislature’s budget session as openly campaigning for re-election or as a “lame duck” was understandable, his delay in announcing his decision forces Democratic candidates to play “catch up.”

Governor Freudenthal recognizes the importance of an early start to a statewide campaign.  His bid for the governorship started more than a year before the 2002 election as he traveled the state meeting potential supporters and laying the groundwork for a campaign organization.  In January of  this year, when his plans were uncertain, the governor was quoted by the Casper Star-Tribune as responding to questions about what appeared to be preliminary campaign activity by saying, “If the decision is to run, I don’t want to be behind the 8-ball when we start.”  And yet the lateness of his announcement has placed other potential Democratic candidates “behind the 8-ball.”

“There are four parts to any campaign,” former Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill once said.  “The candidate, the issues of the candidate, the campaign organization, and the money to run the campaign with.”  The first two components of a campaign are the easiest:  A person decides he or she wants to seek an office and lays out his or her positions on relevant issues.  The third and fourth components require substantially more time and energy.

A statewide campaign organization is a necessity in Wyoming.  The small, dispersed population and the absence of a dominant media market mean that a candidate cannot focus a campaign in limited geographic area.  A campaign in Utah can focus on Salt Lake City and its surrounding environs since 80% of the state’s population is concentrated in the 80-mile stretch from Ogden to Provo.  Candidates in Wyoming have no such luxury.  A presence in most if not all counties is required.  This type of campaign organization takes time to build.

After identifying the four components of a campaign, Speaker O’Neill added: “Without the money you can forget the other three.”  Gubernatorial campaigns are expensive, even in state like Wyoming that has a small population and lacks a large, expensive media market.  According to the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics, Freudenthal raised $750,000 for his first election campaign and more than a million dollars for his 2006 re-election bid.  It is likely that this year’s successful candidate for governor will need to match that figure to attain the office.

Although the challenges are formidable, not all is hopeless for Democrats.  A common feature in the elections of the last three Democratic governors—Ed Herschler, Mike Sullivan, and Dave Freudenthal—is a divisive Republican primary.  The Republican gubernatorial nominees of 1974 and 1986 had margins in the August primary of just one percent with the vote divided among several candidates.  The winner’s margin was substantially greater in 2002, but bitterness generated during the Republican primary made it difficult for nominee Eli Bebout to unify the party during the fall campaign.  In recent years, only  Geringer, with the advantage of 1994’s strong anti-Clinton administration mood, was able to overcome a divisive Republican primary battle to win the governorship.

The Republican gubernatorial primary is shaping up to be another hot affair.  A repeat of 1974, 1986, or 2002 will be a boon to the eventual Democratic nominee.  On the other hand, if Republicans unify after the August primary as they did following the 1996 senatorial primary, when second-place finisher John Barrasso joined Mike Enzi’s campaign as finance chairman, the chances of a Democrat succeeding Governor Freudenthal are remote.

Handicapping political campaigns far in advance of election day can be a dangerous venture.  But clearly Wyoming’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign shifted dramatically from “advantage Democrat” to “advantage Republican” when Governor Freudenthal announced his retirement.

Jim King is a professor of political science at the University of Wyoming, where he teaches classes on American government and politics.  He is a co-author of The Equality State: Government and Politics in Wyoming and has conducted studies of the factors influencing gubernatorial popularity and the effects a governor’s popularity has on electoral politics.

James D. King is professor of political science in the School of Politics, Public Affairs and International Studies at the University of Wyoming.

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