Strike up a conversation about the 2018 election at your typical politics-themed cocktail party, and you’ll find the discussion decidedly Washington-centric. “Can Democrats win the House?” everyone asks breathlessly. “Will Republicans lose the Senate?” Those are both important questions. But one equally consequential electoral arena has mostly flown under the radar: governors races.
Indeed, Democrats’ priority may be retaking Congress in order to make life more difficult for President Trump, but governors play a major role in “the resistance” as well. Governors of blue states are leading the legal fight against the Trump administration on tax law, implementing climate regulations and signing laws to protect undocumented immigrants.
Moreover, most governors have a seat at the table in the drawing of U.S. House district boundaries in their states;1 2018 will be the last chance to elect 26 of those governors before the next redistricting cycle in 2021. After a boffo 2010 gubernatorial cycle, Republicans used their newfound power to gerrymander many states’ congressional districts, contributing to the GOP’s built-in advantage in House elections. Winning back these offices would give Democrats veto power over another decade of Republican gerrymanders — or perhaps even the ability to gerrymander their own districts.
Luckily for Democrats, then, the party is set up for success in 2018’s gubernatorial melee. Unlike the Senate map — inherited from the blue-leaning 2012 election and thus presenting few opportunities for Democratic gains — most of the 36 gubernatorial seats up in 2018 last appeared on the ballot in 2014, a Republican wave year. A full third of them are open seats being vacated by term-limited Republicans who first swept into office during the 2010 GOP wave. In total, Democrats have only nine governors’ offices to defend, while Republicans have a daunting 262 — and that’s before factoring in the unfavorable political environment. Presidential politics has less influence on gubernatorial results than it does on Senate and House races, but the connection is growing stronger in this era of intense partisanship. It would be foolish of Republicans to assume that their 2018 gubernatorial campaigns will be immune from Trump’s unpopularity and the Democratic strength on the generic ballot.
But while we can say with some confidence that the gubernatorial map favors Democrats, we can’t yet make many claims about how each race will unfold. Like someone whose eyeglasses prescription is five years out of date, we can make out the general contours, but it’s tough to get a clear picture of elections that are still nine months away. FiveThirtyEight’s usual not-so-secret weapon — polling — has a mixed record of accuracy at this early juncture in gubernatorial campaigns.
The first challenge is simply asking the right questions: Most states’ primary elections are still months away, so we don’t know who will be facing off in most general elections. The FiveThirtyEight polling database contains 250 polls of gubernatorial races in the 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016 November elections that were taken before Feb. 1 of the election year, but only 135 of them correctly tested the two candidates who would go on to be their parties’ nominees.
Then, even those 135 polls were only so-so at predicting the final result. I calculated a RealClearPolitics-style average3 of those polls for each of the 42 races surveyed and compared it to the final result. The average error between the average polling margin and the final electoral margin was a mediocre 7.7 points. (For reference, the average error between the final RealClearPolitics average and the election margin in those same gubernatorial races was 3.6 points.) And while there was definitely a relationship between the two, the correlation was hardly perfect.4
For every early-poll success story, there was one absolutely hopeless polling miss. For instance, the early polls predicted that Nathan Deal would defeat Jason Carter by 8 percentage points in Georgia’s 2014 governor’s race, and that’s exactly what happened. But the early polls also predicted that Ed FitzGerald would lose the 2014 Ohio gubernatorial election to John Kasich by 12 points. Then, in August, FitzGerald could not satisfactorily explain why he was caught in a parked car at 4:30 a.m. with a woman who was not his wife. He wound up losing by nearly 31 points. Obviously, the early polls couldn’t predict that the race would take such a turn.
So, no, we can’t give you a sneak peek at the official FiveThirtyEight gubernatorial forecast quite yet (check in this summer for that) — but we can give you the aforementioned general contours. Over the next few weeks, check back for a first look at all the gubernatorial contests on the 2018 ballot. Finally, some ammunition for that cocktail party.