The Illinois Governor’s Race: What Should We Expect from Inexperienced, Superrich Candidates?

As midterm elections draw near, media reports on record high campaign spending by new and old political players underscore an emerging trend identified by Mooney as the rise of the Superrich Neophyte Candidate (SNC). In an examination of Illinois’s current (and very expensive) gubernatorial race, Mooney argues that high-spending gubernatorial candidates who have some government experience are more likely to succeed in office than those with none at all.

July 26, 2018

Illinois gubernatorial nominees Bruce Rauner and J.B. Pritzker are among the wealthiest people ever to run for political office in the United States. The results of the March 20 primary suggests that Illinois is finally catching on to a national trend of the past couple of decades—the rise of the Superrich Neophyte Candidate (SNC).

 

SNCs have three distinguishing features:

  • They are really rich and willing to spend their own money on their campaigns. I’m talking seriously rich people, with wealth in the hundreds of millions and billions of dollars.
  • They have never served in public office before. They’ve been too busy earning and/or managing all that money.
  • They start at the top, running for governor, the U.S. Senate—or even the presidency (think Trump). Why work your way up when you’re used to being top dog?

 

Given their increasing prominence, it’s worth asking whether SNCs are really different than the average candidate. Do they fare better (or worse) in terms of election outcomes and public approval? This question is of great importance to Illinois, given that there are two SNCs running in the current election. Below, I compare SNCs to more typical candidates using the current 50 governors.

 

First, SNCs typically lose elections. This is not so strange; there are usually more candidates than seats, so most candidates of any type tend to lose. The difference is that for most defeated candidates, the losses are not usually so eye-popping as they are for failed SNCs. For example, Amway scion Dick DeVos spent $35M to lose the 2006 Michigan governor’s race, and WWE owner Linda McMahon spent nearly $100M losing Connecticut races for the U.S. Senate in 2010 and 2012. Of course, the poster child for unsuccessful SNCs is former Ebay and Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman. She spent $175M to lose the 2010 California governor’s race. Many more examples exist.

 

To date, Illinois has seen fewer of these SNCs than other states, and when they do run here, they have fared poorly. For example, SNCs Blair Hull and Jack Ryan lost in dramatic style in the U.S. Senate race in 2004, leading directly to Obama’s rise in national politics. Jim Oberweis lost races for U.S. Senate (twice), governor, and Congress, before settling into the State Senate in 2013. In Illinois, we typically like our politicians to be professionals.

 

In 2014, Rauner became the first SNC to be elected to statewide office in Illinois. He is one of seven current governors who won running as SNCs, along with another five governors who are superrich but who had some prior government experience. (Notice that this means that almost 25% of today’s state governors are superrich.)

 

Second, and most important, how well do SNCs govern when they win? Some argue that they bring much-needed business acumen to public service, with “run government like a business” being seen as a positive campaign message. Others maintain that government is fundamentally different than business, requiring different leadership skills, and that the superrich are out of touch with the average voter. Which is right?

 

While performance in office is notoriously difficult to measure, I look at approval-disapproval scores for governors. For example, if a governor surveys at 50% approval and 35% disapproval, then her approval-disapproval score is +15%. Positive numbers mean that approval outstrips disapproval; negative numbers show the opposite. I use Q1 2018 data on gubernatorial performance from the website Morning Consult to examine this question.

TABLE: SNC and Superrich Governors, 2018


Current SNC Governors

Q1 2018 Approval-Disapproval Rating

Bevin (R-KY)

-2%

Burgum (R-ND)

+36%

Justice (R-WV)

-2%

Rauner (R-IL)

-34%

Ricketts (R-NE)

+22%

Scott (R-FL)

+22%

Snyder (R-MI)

-10%

AVERAGE

+5%

AVERAGE WITHOUT RAUNER

+11%


Current Non-SNC, Superrich Governors

Q1 2018 Approval-Disapproval Rating

Baker (R-MA)

+55%

Dayton (D-MN)

+18%

Ducey (R-AZ)

+7%

Haslam (R-TN)

+33%

Wolf (D-PA)

+6%

AVERAGE

+24%

Source: “America’s Most and Least Popular Governor: Q1 2018 Rankings”, Morning Consult

On this indicator, Illinois’ Rauner was the third least popular governor in the country, with a -34% approval-disapproval score. But has his performance been so poor because he was a SNC? Or is something else at play?

 

Looking at the seven current SNC governors, we find considerable heterogeneity in approval-disapproval scores, from Doug Burgum’s (R-ND) +36% score down to Rauner’s -34% rating. The 43 non-SNC governors averaged a +16% score, while the SNC governors averaged +5%. But, if we drop the abysmal Rauner score from the SNC average, the remaining six SNC governors average a much more comparable +11%.

 

But there is one thing SNCs lack that several other superrich candidates possess, and which seems to make a difference: Experience. Consider the performance of the five current superrich governors  with prior government experience. Their average approval-disapproval score is +24%, higher than that for SNC governors or even non-superrich governors. In other words, the superrich may do well or poorly at governing, but if they have some government experience, they are much more likely to succeed. It seems that the combination of some government experience and deep pockets is a winning combination for gubernatorial success.

 

Obviously, competence, managerial skill, and other intangibles also affect gubernatorial performance. Why, for example, would SNC governor Rick Scott (R-FL) have such a better approval-disapproval score (+22%) than Rauner, another SNC governor from a large and complex state? The fact that no superrich governor with government experience has a negative approval-disapproval rating suggests that experience, not money, matters most.

 

In January 2019, barring a political apocalypse, Illinois will swear in a governor who is an SNC. After avoiding it for some years, we now seem to be jumping into this national trend with both feet. Is Rauner’s poor performance due to his inexperience in government or is it simple incompetence? If Pritzker wins in November, we’ll have another test of whether an SNC can succeed here.

 

Christopher Z. Mooney is the W. Russell Arrington Professor of State Politics in the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

 


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