When senators run for president, they hold up their voting records. Governors seeking the White House proclaim they produced an economic miracle, cherry-picking data on jobs, budget and taxes.
Four sitting governors, as well as a number of former ones, will participate in one of two events when CNN holds the second round of Republican debates on Wednesday.
The economy should be a major topic. The four active governors served in good and bad times and were similarly affected by the national economy. The Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States, which assesses a half-dozen economic criteria, provides a good comparative guide.
By this measure, the top performer in the field is Gov. John Kasich of Ohio. Since 2011, the index shows, Ohio has the 11th best economic performance of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Wisconsin, under Gov. Scott Walker, is 32nd; New Jersey, under Chris Christie, is 39th; and Bobby Jindal’s Louisiana is 47th. (North Dakota and Michigan rank first and second.)
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During Kasich’s five and a half years in office, employment in his state has increased 6.5 percent, outpacing the 5.1 percent growth for Walker and 4.5 percent for Christie. In Louisiana, which is heavily dependent on the oil and gas industry, employment declined 4.5 percent on Jindal’s watch. Personal income also rose more in Ohio — 15.5 percent — than in the other three states.
(Jindal was elected in 2007 and Christie in 2009, and Kaisch and Walker took office at the beginning of 2011. The comparative data cover the period from 2011 to the present.)
These may be the most politically salient measurements. Other data show more mixed results. Home prices have risen in all four states, the most in Louisiana, probably reflecting the Hurricane Katrina recovery. Mortgage delinquency rates have been cut the most in Wisconsin and Ohio.
Of the four former governors still in the contest, the most notable is Jeb Bush, who served in Florida from 1999 through 2006, when the state experienced an economic boom. Yet a recent analysis in The Washington Post showed that much of the growth was attributable to a “massive and unsustainable housing bubble — one that ultimately benefited rich investors at the expense of middle-income families.”
The other ex-governors, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, George Pataki of New York and Jim Gilmore of Virginia aren’t first-tier contenders. (Kasich, Christie, Bush and Walker qualified for the prime-time debate. Jindal, Huckabee and Pataki will be on the undercard.)
Beyond his accomplishments as governor, Kasich may be overstating some of his other economic credentials. He often cites his experience in banking, even though he was employed by Lehman Brothers, which famously collapsed in 2008.
He also served nine terms in the House of Representatives. He was House Budget Committee chairman from 1995 through 2000, and takes credit for the four balanced budget during the Clinton administration.
Robert Reischauer, a Democrat who was director of the Congressional Budget Office from 1989 to 1995, praises Kasich as a “reasonable chairman.” But he says the credit for those surpluses belongs to the 1990 and 1993 budget agreements (which had tax hikes and spending cuts), the end of the Cold War that enabled Congress to achieve spending caps, and the technology fueled economic boom of the 1990s. Kasich’s current call for a constitutional amendment to mandate a balanced budget seems specious.
But his Ohio performance is the real deal. Before Kasich took office in 2011, the jobless rate was above the national average. It is now 5 percent, lower than the national average. First-time jobless claims could reach an all-time low for the state this year. He has championed business-friendly policies, and a record number of businesses were created in Ohio last year.
Perhaps the best indicator is the opinion of voters. In conservative Louisiana, Jindal is more unpopular than President Barack Obama. Walker and Christie both have negative ratings with record levels of disapproval. In Ohio, by two to one, constituents gave a thumbs-up to Kasich.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.
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