The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Editorials

June 9, 2014

Michael Young and Terry Madonna | Tom Wolf's real opponent

JOHNSTOWN — Newly nominated Democrat Tom Wolf thinks he is running against Republican incumbent Tom Corbett for Pennsylvania governor. And he is. But he is also running against history – a lot of it – all predicting that Wolf won’t defeat Corbett in the fall. That history may turn out to be Wolf’s toughest opponent and his greatest obstacle to becoming Pennsylvania’s next governor.

The history to which we allude is, of course, Pennsylvania’s now notorious “eight-year cycle” – a 60-year uninterrupted interval that began in 1954. During this period, the Republican and Democratic parties have alternated the governor’s office exactly every eight years.

Over this time span, 15 total gubernatorial elections comprising seven successive eight-year cycles have occurred. No party has held the governorship less than two consecutive terms or more than two consecutive terms.

There are three compelling things to understand about the widely misunderstood eight-year cycle.

First, it is not a statistical fluke; the odds of a 60-year run like this one happening by chance are more than 8,000-to-1 against. There is solid statistical evidence that something meaningful lies behind the cycle and caused it.

Second, the causes of the eight-year cycle are neither mystical nor obscure. It is, in fact, well understood that four major causes or factors underlie and can explain the cycle.

Third, some of these factors may be more important than others, but no one of them alone causes the eight-year cycle. All four are necessary, but not one of them is sufficient to explain the cycle.

What then does?

The following four causes or factors in combination are generally believed to explain the eight-year cycle. With a single exception, all of them have been present in each cycle. That single exception almost ended the eight-year cycle.

Power of Incumbency:  Incumbency is still probably the single most important influence in contemporary politics, and its role in the eight-year cycle looms large. For the past 40 years of the cycle, incumbent governors could run for a second term. All have, and all have won.  Only when incumbents can no longer run does a party switch occur in the governor’s office. Moreover, not all incumbents have been particularly popular when they ran successfully for re-election. Dick Thornburgh almost lost his bid while Ed Rendell’s approval rating was in the low 40s at the start of his re-election year.

Control of the White House: The party not in control of the presidency has won every gubernatorial term in the 15-election string, with the sole exception of Dick Thornburgh’s second term (1982). Clearly, state voters prefer governors from the opposing party to the president. This notion also fits with the well-established tendency for voters, in general, to oppose the president’s party in mid-term elections. All Pennsylvania gubernatorial elections occur in mid-term years.

Cost of Governing: It is well-established that the longer a party holds power, the harder it is for that party to continue in power. There is, in short, a political cost to long tenure in power. This is the familiar “ins and outs” phenomenon in American two-party politics that regularly finds “in” parties losing support over time, opening up opportunities for the “out” party. Pennsylvania voters seem to tire of the “ins” every eight years. Or, more precisely, after eight years of one party, voters are ready to vote for the change represented by the other party

The Economy: The health of the economy in re-election years clearly plays a role in the eight-year cycle. Voters often hold governors responsible for economic conditions, much as they do presidents. Worse, perhaps, economic downturns typically wreak havoc on state budgets. A poor economy was the reason Thornburgh only narrowly won re-election in the 1982 recession year. With the single exception of Thornburgh, incumbent governors running for re-election since 1974 (the first year a governor could run for a second term) have enjoyed a good or recovering economy. Thornburgh’s close call underscores the importance of economic conditions to the outcome of gubernatorial elections.

Understanding the eight-year cycle explains much about what has mattered in past elections. Yet there is nothing magical about it. It is not a crystal ball.

Statistically speaking, it is a trend line, one explainable by four factors: power of incumbency; midterm voting against the White House; the cost of governing; and the economy.

Will the eight year-cycle end in 2014? Many believe it will. Almost certainly it will be tested as never before. An astounding 60-year streak may be over.

But a slam dunk it is not. Pennsylvania’s unbroken string of party changeovers has been no quirk. The

eight-year cycle has worked for a very long time, and it has worked because a specific set of four conditions has prevailed in state politics.

When those conditions no longer prevail, the eight-year cycle will probably end.

It won’t end before that.

G. Terry Madonna, Ph.D., is professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. Michael Young, Ph.D., is a former professor of politics and public affairs at Penn State University and is managing partner of Michael Young Strategic Research.

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