With a highly polarized and gridlocked national government, much of the substantive policymaking in the United States is currently being done at the state level. This will remain the case after the election next month, as the impasse in Washington, D.C., certainly will continue. But the contours of state policymaking are likely to change a bit. To fully appreciate the role of electoral cycles and the nature of elections at the state level, we need to recognize four characteristics of state elections.

First, electoral rules and procedures are not the same in all states. The obvious difference is in primary elections, where the rules may be quite different from one state to another in regard to who can participate (open versus closed primaries, for example), who wins (is it a plurality rule or a majority rule requiring a run-off?) and when the primary election is held (they range from March until September).

This year, governors will be elected in 36 states, since most states now hold gubernatorial elections in the presidential “off-year.” Currently, the Republicans control 22 of those gubernatorial seats, while Democrats control 14. More than 80 percent of those governors are seeking re-election and most of them will win. As political scientists, we know that incumbent governors win re-election at a rate of about 75 percent — which is actually a lower incumbent success rate than for most offices (state legislators and congressmen, for example, generally win re-election at a rate of about 90 percent).

Four Things to Watch

  1. With 36 governors up for re-election, some states could flip parties.
  2. While the national government is divided, most states are unified.
  3. More partisan involvement — and spending — in judicial races.
  4. Ballot initiatives on issues like marijuana, abortion, GMO labelling and “top-two” primaries and their effect on turnout.

Currently, there are as many as 10 states that could experience a partisan shift in the governor’s office. This does not mean all these states will change partisan control; it does mean that the gubernatorial races in these states are close enough that at least some of them might flip. These include Arkansas, Colorado and Illinois (potentially moving from Democrat to Republican) and Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (potentially moving from Republican to Democrat). A late surge by one or the other parties could make for some important changes in these, and perhaps even a few other, states.

Second, while the two major parties are basically evenly divided at the national level, this is not necessarily the case in the states. There are some deeply red states, some deeply blue states and a smaller number of truly competitive states. Recently, states appear to have undergone some substantial partisan sorting or realignment. For example, Republicans now control all of the Southern state legislatures. Arkansas and North Carolina were the last holdouts, and the GOP finally gained control of both these states. The “solid South” is once again solid, albeit solidly Republican.

More and more states now experience “unified government,” wherein one party controls both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office. This trend is quite clear in the chart below. In 2012, 37 states experienced unified government and only 12 states had divided government (Nebraska is not included because the legislature is elected on a non-partisan basis). So, after the 2012 elections, we had unified government in more states than at any time in the past 50 years. Note that between 1984 and 2004 unified government did not exist in even half the states at any time.

states with unified government

National Conference of State Legislatures
Number of sates with unified government, where the legislative and executive branches are controlled by the same party [click to enlarge].

This trend toward more and more states with unified government is an important phenomenon at the state level. Unified government means policy is easier to enact, since the governor and both chambers of the legislature are all on the same partisan page. Moreover, the ideological distance (polarization) between the two major parties is growing. Political science research shows that the congressional parties are more polarized than at any time since the Civil War. Increased polarization of the parties is clearly evident in many states as well. Together, polarization and unified government mean that the policy difference between unified Democratic states and unified Republican states is increasing. Gridlock may be the condition at the national level of governance, but it is not the norm at the state level.

We will continue to see a large number of unified state governments after the 2014 election, although it is unlikely that the number will be quite as high as it is currently. A few states (Colorado, Illinois and West Virginia) are presently unified Democratic but may become divided by losing either the governor’s office or one legislative chamber. Similarly, a few states that are now unified Republican (Florida, Kansas and Pennsylvania) could move into “divided government” status because their GOP governors are in very close races. On the other hand, there is a good chance that two states currently with divided government (Arkansas and Iowa) will become unified Republican. After the 2014 election, we can expect 34 or 35 unified states, meaning that much of the substantive policymaking in the U.S. will remain at the state level.

A third feature of state elections involves the judicial branch. Unlike federal judges, most state (and local) judges are subject to election in one form or another. In some states, judges—including state supreme court justices—are elected on a partisan ballot. In some states they are elected on a nonpartisan ballot. In others, justices must undergo a “retention election,” in which the voters are asked if they approve (wish to retain) each judge.

State judicial elections are increasingly competitive, expensive and contentious. It is now commonplace in some states for supreme court campaigns to spend hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.

Several states will experience important elections for their supreme courts this year. In North Carolina and Tennessee, judicial elections are ostensibly nonpartisan, but the party affiliations of judges are generally known. In both states, the Republican Party is targeting incumbent Democratic judges. Ohio, a state with a recent history of contentious and expensive Supreme Court races, has two judges up for re-election this year. One of the incumbents has already raised $1.5 million.

A final and very significant feature of states is the phenomenon known as “direct democracy.” State elections often include initiatives or referenda—issues on which the public may vote. Many of these issues are high profile, such as same-sex marriage, gun control, abortion, immigration or the legalization of marijuana. These issues are often controversial and may evoke strong emotions among the electorate. When such issues appear on the ballot, they can influence voter turnout and can have an effect on how voters perceive specific candidates.

In even-number years (such as this year), it is not uncommon for a total of 170-200 total initiatives and referenda to be up for a vote across the various states. Many of the most salient issues appear through the initiative process, which involves citizens (or groups) gathering enough signatures to qualify a question for the ballot, after which the electorate then votes directly on the issue. The initiative process is especially prevalent in the Western United States. Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, South Dakota and Washington are states wherein the initiative is often used to define public policy. Idaho also has the initiative, but it is less frequently used here than in many states. While the number of highly controversial issues appears to be smaller this year, we will see voters in Alaska, Florida and Oregon deciding whether to legalize marijuana (recreational use in Alaska and Oregon and medical use in Florida).

Abortion is often the subject of direct democracy efforts, and this year is no exception, with it appearing on the ballot in Colorado, North Dakota and Tennessee. Efforts to raise the minimum wage will be voted upon by the electorate in Alaska, Illinois and South Dakota. GMO food labelling is on the ballot in Oregon and Colorado.

A particularly interesting issue to watch is the initiative in Oregon to establish a “top-two” primary system. Top-two primaries create a system in which all candidates, regardless of political party, run in the same primary election, and the top two vote getters then face each other in the general election. Because all voters can participate in the primary, the assumption is that more moderate candidates are likely to be nominated. Top-two primaries were successfully implemented in California and Washington, and if the same system passes in Oregon we are likely to see efforts to establish top-two primaries in other states with the initiative, including Idaho.

For all the reasons mentioned above, the 2014 election will help define the parameters of politics and political discourse for the next few years. Politically, states matter, and state elections especially matter.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.