Saturday, January 30, 2010


Would a Quinn Victory Buck Historical Trends? Nah.

Incumbent Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has at best a 50/50 chance of winning the Democratic Gubernatorial Primary over State Comptroller Dan Hynes on Tuesday. Hynes has seen what can only be described as a meteoric rise through the polls thanks to criticisms of Quinn's handling of the state budget and early inmate release program. Responding to the news that Quinn may lose, NBC's First Read blog (I interned with them last spring) declared "a sitting governor just might lose his primary, which doesn't happen often". Are my old bosses right?

A cursory examination of elections that have taken place over the past 10 years shows they are right. Since 2000, a total of 118 gubernatorial elections have taken place, and only 3 incumbent governors have been defeated in a primary or party nominating convention: Bob Holden (D-MO), Frank Murkowski (R-AK), and Olene Walker (R-UT). So, only 2.5% of gubernatorial elections experienced an incumbent governor losing his/her primary or party nominating convention. This statistic is a little misleading because not all governors run for re-election. If we limit our examination to the 72 races where the incumbent governor ran for re-election, the number of incumbent governors defeated in a primary or party nominating convention rises to 4.2%. This percentage is also quite small.

But what happens when we limit our search to incumbent governors who were not elected to the position? Pat Quinn was elected lieutenant governor and rose to the rank of governor due to the removal of Governor Rod Blagojevich. Since 2000, a total of six of these "replacement" governors have run for re-election. Amazingly, three of these "replacement" governors (50%) lost their bid for re-election in either the general or primary election: Joe Kernan (R-IN), Scott McCallum (R-WI), and Olene Walker (R-UT). Their rate of defeat is 36.5% greater than governors who had been elected to the office.

One of these defeated "replacements", Walker, lost in 2004 because the Republican party nominating convention refused to place her name on the primary ballot. This rate of defeat in the primaries for "replacement" governors (16.7%) is significantly higher than the rate of defeat for elected governors (3.0%).

Thus, a Quinn defeat on Tuesday would not be a shocker. Even if Quinn is able to survive on Tuesday, historical trends indicate that he would face a much a tougher fight in the general election than his elected brethren. These numbers are not surprising considering that "replacement" governors often have lower name identification and do not have an established "base" in the electorate because they have not previously run visible statewide campaigns.

My old bosses may be right that incumbent governors rarely are defeated in a primary (or overall), but "replacement" governors are an entirely different species.

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