Economy could sink sitting governors in 2016 race

By Matt A. Mayer (@ohiomatt), President of Opportunity Ohio.

If a month is a long time in politics, then eight months is an eternity. Of the various candidates who have officially jumped in or set-up a pseudo-campaign apparatus, the ones with the most to lose between now and December are the ones currently sitting in governor’s offices. That list includes Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Ohio’s John Kasich, and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker.



Because their records and, therefore, their campaign narratives could get swallowed by events. Specifically, one event: a U.S. recession. All four sitting governors have presided over a recovery for most, if not, all of their tenures. That has allowed them to blame the 2009 recession for the mess they inherited and take credit for the jobs added from 2010 to today.

Despite the growing global instability, U.S. presidential elections are still, as James Carville famously observed, about “the economy, stupid!” For many Americans, the tepid recovery has not allowed them to regain what they lost during the recession. When, not if, the U.S. enters another recession, those Americans will be hurting and looking for someone to help them.

Should the recession occur before November 2016, Barack Obama will get the same blame George W. Bush got in 2008. The Republican candidate will benefit just as Obama did.

Should the recession occur before January 2016, however, those four governors will be in a world of hurt for two key reasons. First, they will share the blame with Obama for the job losses and none of them can afford to see their jobs records get any worse. Based on the latest U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, since 2010, the private sector net percentage growth ranking of the four states is:

  • Louisiana/Jindal: 21st (ignores the job losses in 2008 and 2009)
  • New Jersey/Christie: 49th (this covers Christie’s entire time in office)
  • Ohio/Kasich: 24th (25th since he took office in 2011)
  •  Wisconsin/Walker: 31st (33rd since he took office in 2011)

Compare those rankings with Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee during their eight years given that their terms ended right before the recession and Rick Perry who had the 10th best rank from 2000 to 2010 and 3rd best from 2010 to 2015 when he left office.

Secondly, imagine what those four governor’s state budgets will look like should a recession occur. State revenues will plummet leading to potentially big deficits, especially in places like Ohio where state spending is projected to skyrocket by more than 40% in just five years under Kasich. The higher spending entirely depends upon increasing tax revenues. In contrast, Bush, Huckabee, and Perry can talk about leaving their states in better shape economically.

So, what are the odds of a recession hitting America between now and December? No one really knows, but a key indicator is flashing red.

From 1929 to today, America has had fourteen recessions, with an average recovery of 57 months. The current recovery is the 4th longest since 1929 at 90 months. In July 2015, it will become the 3rd longest and, by September 2016, the 2nd longest. Given the increasing global uncertainty and mixed economic data, I wouldn’t bet my 401(k) that this recovery will set a new record.


Though just an anecdote, Ohio’s average yearly unemployment rate has fallen every year since hitting a high in 2009. It is now at 5.1%, which Kasich rightfully highlights. If Ohio ends 2015 below 5.6%, it will mark six straight years it has dropped. Since 1987, the longest period of time the unemployment rate dropped after hitting a high is four years.

Perhaps this time it will be different. Perhaps the Obama Administration and the Federal Reserve have figured it out and we won’t have cyclical recessions anymore. Perhaps coming interest rate hikes won’t impact the stock market. Perhaps a strong dollar won’t crush exports and manufacturing. And, perhaps continued low energy prices won’t lead to more job losses and capital expenditure reductions.

Again, I wouldn’t bet your kid’s college fund on more growth.

Right now, the four current governors can ride the recovery narrative and compete with Bush, Huckabee, and Perry. If a black swan hits or the law of averages rears its head in the next eight months, then those four governors will face a weakening job market and growing state budget deficits that could sink their ships. Their fates are intertwined with the economy.

With so much risk swirling, it is far better to have a settled gubernatorial record like Bush, Huckabee, and Perry. With Walker’s status as a top-tier candidate, troubles for him presumably would create an opening for another candidate to grab voters currently in his column.


With eight months left in the year, we are in for a wild ride largely outside of any campaign’s control. That only means trouble for sitting governors.


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