Why Governors Are Struggling in the 2016 Race

The conventional wisdom is that successful candidates should stay far from Washington. So why are senators doing so much better than governors this cycle?

Gov. Bobby Jindal answers questions about his unsuccessful campaign for the 2016 Republican nomination on Wednesday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Jindal ended his presidential bid a day earlier, after lagging in polls and fundraising. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

When the GOP presidential primary began, the trendy opinion among Washington insiders was the party would nominate a governor—someone, the thinking went, with a record of conservative achievement far from the much-hated Beltway.

Actual Republican voters apparently don’t share that view.

In a primary that has defied prognostication, one of the biggest surprises yet has been the failure of any Republican governor, former or current, to break through to the top of the field. Each of them has dropped either to the lower rungs of the polls or out of the race entirely—a fact underscored Tuesday when Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal unceremoniously ended his struggling candidacy.

He was the third major Republican candidate to quit the race, joining former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and current Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. And they fared only marginally worse than the three viable governors who remain—Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich—each of whom has run a disappointing campaign that has made them, for the time being, long shots.

So why has such a traditional stepping stone to the presidency proven so inadequate now? The reason, senior Republican strategists say, lies in a fundamental change within an angry Republican electorate and a host of candidates—Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz—whose background and talents are better suited to take advantage. The usual advantages enjoyed by governors running for the White House, such as a record of accomplishments or status as a Washington outsider, simply no longer rate.

“We are into an age where it seems like your ability to get yourself on cable news and be a rock star in a reality-TV era matters more than what you’ve accomplished in a state like Texas or New Jersey or Florida,” said Henry Barbour, a committeeman for the Republican National Committee and an informal adviser to Rick Perry’s campaign. “It’s tough, and it’s not good, but it is reality. And campaigns have to deal with what the voters are looking for.”

Even in the smaller Democratic field, the lone remaining governor—former Maryland chief executive Martin O’Malley—is a long way from second place, looking up at veteran Sen. Bernie Sanders. Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee dropped out of the contest in October.

Usually, governors can count on a bump in support from voters hungry to change both their party and Washington with a leader who hails from beyond the Beltway. It helped propel Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton to their respective parties' presidential nomination and, later, the presidency.

But with Carson's and Trump’s presence, the voter appetite for change has passed over governors in favor of candidates even more removed from the establishment.

“Those people have taken the Republican grassroots by storm,” said Greg Mueller, a Republican strategist who worked on Pat Buchanan’s 1992 presidential bid. “I think what’s happened is these governors who were going to be the outsider candidates, an end run was done around them with more real outsiders.”

Between them, Trump and Carson have drawn the support of about half of the Republican electorate since the summer, according to national polls. And Cruz and Rubio, while drawing comparatively lower support, are widely seen as the two candidates most likely to win the nomination because of their perceived ability to combine grassroots enthusiasm with a professionally run campaign.

The three governors left, by comparison, barely reach double-digits in support—combined. And months of talking about what they accomplished as governor have done little to move the needle.

It’s not as if they, or the three candidates who have left the race, have nothing to talk about: Walker waged a high-profile fight to neuter unions in Wisconsin, Perry led the loud and proud conservative state in the country for more than decade, and Bush—often derided by activists as a squish—was only recently considered the country’s most conservative governor. Jindal cut spending, while Kasich and Christie have led conservative reform in states with a strong Democratic presence.

Voters just didn’t care—in part, because their disgust with the political system has made them mistrustful of anything an elected official. Wes Anderson, a top strategist and pollster for the Jindal campaign, said focus groups and surveys conducted by the campaign showed that voters liked the individual parts of Jindal’s record. They just reflexively didn’t believe him when he talked about it.

“In this very strange and convoluted election cycle, the Republican primary voters have said, ‘If you’re in elected office, then I discount what you’re saying,’” said Anderson.

He added: “If a politician is telling them they’ve done good things, they’re not listening.”

The governors have also lacked the media platforms available to senators not just in office, but while they were running for office in the first place. Rubio and Cruz, for instance, ran as conservative insurgents in 2010 and 2012, respectively, against establishment-backed Republicans.

Those races connected the now-senators with grassroots Republicans all over the country.

“Because of the nationalization of Senate races, these guys have been able to build national brands around the country,” said Jordan Gehrke, a Republican strategist. “So my grandmother in Carson City, Michigan, feels she has a bond with Ted Cruz in a way she doesn’t with Bobby Jindal.”

Since arriving in Washington, their opportunities have only increased. They’ve been in the center of high-profile fights against both the Obama administration and Senate Republican leaders, battles that have landed them coverage both nationally and locally.

“Frankly, there is just more a lot more theater to this,” Gehrke said, “because there’s a lot more media.”