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What Is Involved in Gubernatorial Elections?

By Ken Black
Updated May 17, 2024
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Gubernatorial elections in the United States typically involve two separate campaign seasons, usually a primary, followed by a general election in which the people of the state choose a governor. The elections may take place in years where the president is chosen or not chosen, depending on the state. While most governors' terms run four years, some are only in office for two years at a time, which significantly shortens the elections cycle for the state's top office.

For most states, the process of choosing a governor is very similar to that of choosing the president at the national level. Members of each party typically seek their own party's nomination, usually in a primary election. At this point, it is usually those belonging to the party who make the decision who they will put up in the general election. Once the primary victor has been declared, the winning candidates generally square off in the general election.

Louisiana is one state without a gubernatorial primary. Instead, all candidates seeking the office and qualifying according to state law appear on the ballot in the fall. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, then the top two in the results hold a runoff election against each other. The winner of that election is the individual who will serve as governor.

Spending in gubernatorial elections has generally increased each year in most states, especially since the beginning of the 21st Century. One study of the California 2010 gubernatorial primary alone showed spending increased more than 20 percent from 2006 to 2010. Many states have also experienced record spending in their most recent gubernatorial elections. These numbers did not include other groups that spent money trying to influence voters.

When campaigning in gubernatorial elections, candidates try to focus on the issue that will resonate the most with voters. In some cases, they may mirror national issues, but are generally more inwardly focused. For example, the state economy can be a big issue for gubernatorial candidates, regardless of what the national economy is doing. Increasingly, some national issues, such as immigration, have begun to gain the attention of gubernatorial candidates as well.

Another difference in gubernatorial elections deals with the terms of office. Two states, New Hampshire and Vermont, have terms of two years for governors, making the time between election cycles extremely short. All but 14 states have term limits. All states but one with term limits designate that governors can only serve two, four-year terms. The exception to that is Virginia, which allows governors to only serve one term.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By Logicfest — On Nov 25, 2014

@Melonlity -- A third party has about as much chance of winning a gubernatorial election in Louisiana as anywhere else. You'll notice the governor of Louisiana is almost always a Democrat or Republican.

The fact there is no primary, then, doesn't give third party candidates a boost. The money the two major parties can raise to spend on elections gives their candidates a boost.

Besides, the two major parties have achieved that status for a reason. They have platforms and policies that are agreeable to a heck of a lot of people.

By Melonlity — On Nov 25, 2014

Louisiana totally has it right. Why bother with a primary that will all but guarantee that one of the two, major political parties winds up with the governor's office. Sure, other parties field candidates, but they are generally shoved in the background after a contentious runoffs between Democrats and Republicans.

In other words, those primaries give Democrats and Republicans a boost in terms of name recognition. Third parties don't get that boost. Without it, what chance does a third party have?

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