Elections always leave some unfinished business. Tom Wolf’s historic win over incumbent Tom Corbett is no exception. Why Wolf won has been discussed widely and fully analyzed. The remaining unfinished business is assessing what his victory means for Pennsylvania’s legendary “Eight-Year Cycle”: the heretofore unbroken cycle of gubernatorial victories going back 60 years in which Democrats and Republicans exchanged the governor’s office exactly every eight years.
Whether you believe the eight-year cycle was fluke or fact, it was influential. Many political types believed in it or plotted strategy based on it. Almost unquestionably it explained why the “out” party often fielded weak or underfunded challengers. Some believe it often became a self-fulfilling prophecy, bringing about what it predicted.
But the question now that it has ended is a simpler one. What does it mean for Pennsylvania politics?
Two possibilities suggest themselves. One is that the Corbett re-election failure was an outlier: think of it as the hundred year flood or a “black swan” that improbably happens – and happens only once. Arguing that Corbett was an outlier implies the eight-year cycle could continue with Tom Wolf for example queuing up for the next eight years, to be followed by a Republican for another eight years and so forth.
But there is another possibility: that the eight-year cycle is done, fini, caput, gone forever. Whatever produced it isn’t doing so now and won’t again. That implies future gubernatorial elections will be competitive every four years and the days of the slam dunk second term for incumbent governors are over.
So is the eight-year cycle Pennsylvania’s once and future political fate – or is it fated to be remembered as a statistical fluke that ended rather abruptly in 2014?
One way to answer this question is to examine why the cycle might have occurred for all these years and consider what, if anything, fundamentally changed in 2014.
The cycle’s existence can be attributed to four factors that have been present in state gubernatorial elections since at least 1954. Not one of these was responsible for the cycle alone but all four together were probably necessary.
The role of incumbency in the eight-year cycle loomed large. Since 1970, incumbent governors could run for a second term, all have done so, and until 2014 all have won. Only when incumbents were term-limited and could not run, did a party switch occur in the governor’s office.
· White House Control
With a single exception in 1982, the presidential “out” party had won every gubernatorial term in the 15-election string. State voters have overwhelmingly preferred governors not from the president’s party. In addition voters generally oppose the president’s party in mid-term elections – and Pennsylvania gubernatorial elections always occur in mid-term years.
· Cost of Governing
The longer a party has power, the harder it is for that party to hold onto power. Hard decisions are taken, enemies are made, and bitter feelings accumulate. There is a political cost to a long tenure in power. This is the well-known “ins and outs” phenomenon in two-party politics that regularly costs “in” parties support over time. For more than a half-century, Pennsylvania voters replaced the “ins” every eight years.
· The Economy
The health of the economy in re-election years played a vital role in the eight-year cycle. Voters hold governors responsible for economic conditions as they do presidents. With a single exception (1982), incumbent governors that ran for reelection have enjoyed a good or recovering economy. Arguably this included Corbett.
What then, if anything, was missing from the list of explanatory factors likely responsible for the eight year cycle? The economy was certainly better than when Corbett took office, the White House was in the control of the opposition party, and Corbett was an incumbent.
The culprit then, if culprit it be, was “the cost of governing.” Corbett’s failures have been hashed and rehashed and they need not be further detailed here. Suffice it to say that the Corbett administration’s mistakes, mishaps, and miscalculations dramatically escalated the cost of governing, alienated voters of both parties, and concentrated the normal political liabilities of an eight-year term into four years or less.
What does this imply for future gubernatorial elections? The eight-year cycle may have ended but is it over? If the political factors that caused it no longer operate in state politics, then it is over.
But there has to be serious doubt that those fundamental forces of state politics have changed – or that any future incumbent governor will encounter the perfect storm that wrecked the Corbett administration – a perfect storm that raised the cost of governing so high that no one could pay the bill.
We may have to wait another 60 years or so to be sure. But like the premature rumors of Mark Twain’s death, the rumors of the eight-year cycle’s demise may also be greatly exaggerated.