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Our ‘Popularity Above Replacement Governor’ Rankings Are Back

America loves its Republican governors. According to the latest polling numbers from Morning Consult (which releases quarterly job approval ratings for every governor and senator in the nation), the nine governors with the highest approval ratings all belong to the GOP. But which one leads the pack in the stat that really matters, PARG?!

Last year, riffing off the sabermetric baseball statistic Wins Above Replacement Player, I came up with Popularity Above Replacement Governor (its friends call it “PARG”) as a back-of-the-napkin way to measure how impressive a governor’s popularity really is. It does so by measuring the distance between a governor’s net approval rating (approval rating minus disapproval rating) and her state’s partisan lean (how much more Republican- or Democratic-leaning the state is than the country as a whole).1

To take an example from Morning Consult’s latest poll, which covers the first three months of 2019, Republican Govs. Kay Ivey of Alabama and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire are about equally popular, according to their net approval ratings. Ivey’s is +44, while Sununu’s is +41. But because New Hampshire is less Republican-leaning than Alabama (R+2 compared with R+27), Sununu’s standing is much more impressive — which is why his PARG is 22 points higher than Ivey’s.

The latest ‘Popularity Above Replacement Governor’ scores

Governors’ net approval ratings for the first three months of 2019 relative to the partisan leans* of their states

State Name Party Net Approval state Partisan Lean PARG
MA Charlie Baker R +59 D+29 +88
MD Larry Hogan R +57 D+23 +80
VT Phil Scott R +32 D+24 +56
KS Laura Kelly D +24 R+23 +47
MT Steve Bullock D +26 R+18 +44
NH Chris Sununu R +41 R+2 +39
LA John Bel Edwards D +15 R+17 +32
FL Ron DeSantis R +34 R+5 +29
NC Roy Cooper D +22 R+5 +27
PA Tom Wolf D +21 R+1 +22
WI Tony Evers D +20 R+1 +21
NV Steve Sisolak D +19 R+1 +20
MN Tim Walz D +21 D+2 +19
MI Gretchen Whitmer D +20 D+1 +19
AL Kay Ivey R +44 R+27 +17
TX Greg Abbott R +34 R+17 +17
SC Henry McMaster R +34 R+17 +17
CO Jared Polis D +18 D+1 +17
ME Janet Mills D +20 D+5 +15
GA Brian Kemp R +25 R+12 +13
DE John Carney D +26 D+14 +12
TN Bill Lee R +40 R+28 +12
MS Phil Bryant R +27 R+15 +12
AZ Doug Ducey R +20 R+9 +11
OH Mike DeWine R +18 R+7 +11
AR Asa Hutchinson R +34 R+24 +10
IN Eric Holcomb R +27 R+18 +9
MO Mike Parson R +26 R+19 +7
VA Ralph Northam D +5 EVEN +5
WA Jay Inslee D +15 D+12 +3
ID Brad Little R +36 R+35 +1
NM Michelle Lujan Grisham D +8 D+7 +1
ND Doug Burgum R +34 R+33 +1
IA Kim Reynolds R +6 R+6 0
IL JB Pritzker D +11 D+13 -2
NE Pete Ricketts R +22 R+24 -2
AK Mike Dunleavy R +12 R+15 -3
WY Mark Gordon R +43 R+47 -4
NJ Phil Murphy D +8 D+13 -5
UT Gary Herbert R +25 R+31 -6
OK Kevin Stitt R +26 R+34 -8
OR Kate Brown D -3 D+9 -12
CA Gavin Newsom D +12 D+24 -12
SD Kristi Noem R +18 R+31 -13
NY Andrew Cuomo D +9 D+22 -13
CT Ned Lamont D -4 D+11 -15
WV Jim Justice R +14 R+30 -16
HI David Ige D +11 D+36 -25
RI Gina Raimondo D -11 D+26 -37
KY Matt Bevin R -19 R+23 -42

A Democratic governor with a net approval of +2 in an R+7 state has a PARG of +9 (2+7 = 9). If the same state had a Republican governor with the same approval rating, the PARG would be -5 (2-7= -5).

Shaded rows denote governors whose seats are up in 2019 or 2020, excluding those governors who are not seeking reelection.

* Partisan lean is the average difference between how a state votes and how the country votes overall, with 2016 presidential election results weighted at 50 percent, 2012 presidential election results weighted at 25 percent and results from elections for the state legislature weighted at 25 percent. The partisan leans here were calculated before the 2018 elections; we haven’t calculated FiveThirtyEight partisan leans that incorporate the midterm results yet.

Sources: Morning Consult, media reports

Interestingly, a governor’s popularity often diverges from the partisanship of his state. In fact, there isn’t much of a connection between a governor’s net approval rating and his state’s partisan lean.2 Although that might seem surprising given how dominant partisanship is these days, it’s really not all that shocking: The correlation between gubernatorial and federal election results has gotten stronger in recent years, but partisanship is still a better predictor of the latter than the former. What PARG can do is shed a light on governors who outperform the partisanship of their states — something that can help us suss out who is strongly (or weakly) positioned for the gubernatorial elections in 2019 and 2020.

Since last year, there has been a lot of turnover among governors — four lost their seats in the 2018 election (including one in the primaries),3 and 16 more retired or were term-limited. But the PARG list is still topped by Govs. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland. Along with Phil Scott of Vermont, they make up a trio I’ve dubbed the “Maroon 3” because they are Republicans enisled in deep-blue states.4 And not only did these three GOP castaways survive 2018, but they also continued to thrive as some of the most popular governors in the country.

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky, on the other hand, has … not been so lucky. He’s at the bottom of the list with a -42 PARG. Bevin’s first term has been marred by controversial comments, teacher strikes and a belt-tightening pension reform bill. He’s running for reelection this year, and the race is closer than it probably would be otherwise. In a December poll from Mason-Dixon, Bevin trailed Democratic state Attorney General Andy Beshear, the son of a popular former governor and the likely Democratic nominee, 48 percent to 40 percent. (The primary is on May 21.)

Democrat John Bel Edwards of Louisiana is the only other incumbent governor running for reelection in 2019,5 and he is in the inverse scenario: He has the seventh-highest PARG of any governor, with a solid net approval rating of +15 in an R+17 state. Even a poll that was paid for by his leading GOP rival, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, has Edwards winning reelection (albeit narrowly) in a hypothetical general-election runoff between the two.

Among governors who are up for reelection in 2020, both Scott and Sununu6 would start in strong positions — they rank third and sixth, respectively, in PARG. Likewise, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina has a strong +27 PARG and would start out as a favorite for reelection. On the other hand, with the fourth-worst PARG in the country, the Republican governor of West Virginia, Jim Justice, is significantly less popular than the partisanship of his state suggests he should be. That could be because he was a Democrat when he was elected in 2016 and switched parties the following year, so he might not have a terribly strong partisan base. However, he is a Republican who is running for reelection in a red state (R+30) and has a positive net approval rating, so he probably has a good shot at reelection.

Finally, some governors who aren’t up for reelection in 2019 or 2020 nonetheless have interesting PARGs. For example, among new governors, PARG shows us that Republican Gov. Kristi Noem and Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom are both less popular than they “should” be in red South Dakota and blue California, respectively. Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, is off to the worst start of any new governor, with a PARG of -15, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, is off to one of the best, with a PARG of +29. Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly of Kansas has a stellar +47 PARG, suggesting that many of the state’s residents are siding with her in her clashes with the Republican legislature — many of which she has won.

But perhaps the most astounding PARG of all is the simple +5 score of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia. Yes, despite grabbing the nation’s attention in February by admitting to being in a racist photo in his medical school yearbook and then denying it — only to admit that he wore blackface on a different occasion — Northam’s popularity is above water in a state that is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Some of that is because Northam’s net approval rating was +22 among respondents who took the poll in January, before the controversy hit. But even in February, Morning Consult found Northam’s net approval rating at -6, and it steadily improved in the months after, to -2 in March and +4 in April. Northam’s approval rating among Democratic voters has remained relatively healthy even though many Democratic politicians in the commonwealth have called on him to resign. Northam’s PARG is a good tipoff that maybe the governor will survive the firestorm and have the political capital to serve out his term,7 which ends in 2022.

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  1. FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric is the average difference between how a state votes and how the country votes overall, with 2016 presidential election results weighted at 50 percent, 2012 presidential election results weighted at 25 percent and results from elections for the state legislature weighted at 25 percent. Note that the partisan leans in this article were calculated before the 2018 elections; we haven’t calculated FiveThirtyEight partisan leans that incorporate the midterm results yet.

  2. The correlation between the two is -0.15.

  3. Bill Walker of Alaska, Bruce Rauner of Illinois, Jeff Colyer of Kansas and Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

  4. When I last wrote about PARG, Scott ranked seventh in the metric, but that was only because he had hit a rough patch in his governorship.

  5. Mississippi also has a gubernatorial election this year, but Republican Gov. Phil Bryant can’t run because of term limits.

  6. Governors in Vermont and New Hampshire serve two-year terms.

  7. Northam, like all Virginia governors, legally cannot seek reelection.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.