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 no 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 last 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 incumbent have been particularly popular when they ran successfully for reelection. Dick Thornburgh almost lost his bid while Ed Rendell‘s approval rating was in the low 40’s at the start of his reelection 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 “in’s” 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 as they do presidents. Worse, perhaps, economic downturns typically wreak havoc on state budgets. A poor economy was the reason Dick Thornburgh only narrowly won re-election in the 1982 recession year. With the single exception of Thornburgh, incumbent governors running for reelection 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.