Five days before Christmas, Florida Gov. Rick Scott's reelection campaign received a most welcome gift: The state's unemployment rate had fallen, again, to 6.4 percent.
"Under Rick Scott, Florida's economic recovery continues," trumpeted the state Republican Party.
Good tidings also arrived that day at the White House. President Obama announced that the nationwide unemployment rate had dipped to 7 percent, its lowest point in five years. Although he stopped short of declaring victory, he made sure to tout "the progress we've painstakingly made over these last five years with respect to our economy."
The dueling narratives reflect what's likely to be a leading theme of the 2014 election: the battle between the president and Republican governors for bragging rights over the economy.
Assuming the economic outlook continues to brighten, the debate will be fiercest in the nine swing states won by Obama but run by GOP governors seeking reelection—Florida, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Other Republican governors laying claim to the recovery include potential 2016 presidential contenders such as New Jersey's Chris Christie, Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, and Texas's Rick Perry.
The stakes are high for the GOP, which occupies most of the nation's governor's mansions—30 in all. In light of the nation's disgust with Congress, the party is increasingly promoting its state leadership.
"All across America, Republican governors are doing what Washington can't: getting the big things done to move our country forward," Christie declared when he was elected chairman of the Republican Governors Association in November.
In the nine battleground states, Republican governors were elected in the tea-party wave of 2010, promising to tame unemployment, cut spending, and crack down on labor unions. In some cases, their slash-and-burn approaches cost them dearly, in the polls and beyond. Scott wore the crown of the most unpopular governor in the country from the start. Gov. John Kasich was soundly rebuked by Ohio voters when they struck down his signature overhaul of the state's collective-bargaining law. In the most extreme backlash, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker nearly lost his job in a recall election just 17 months after taking office.
All of these governors have rebounded to some extent amid an improving economy, but whether they deserve the credit for the improvement is another question. Economic cycles are typically far more powerful than any policy enacted by a state's chief executive. "It's like taking credit for the sun coming up in the morning," said Dean Baker, cofounder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
More specifically, of the battleground states run by GOP governors, Florida and Nevada have seen their unemployment rates fall the furthest, but that's hardly proof that Scott and Gov. Brian Sandoval are miracle workers; it is mainly because their states were the hardest hit by the real-estate-market crisis, which began to give way roughly halfway through those governors' first terms.
Brookings Institution economist Gary Burtless says the federal government can have more of an impact on the economy in the short term—defaulting on the national debt, for example, would create immediate fallout—while governors can make more of a difference long-term by nurturing a fertile economic climate. He estimates that a governor nearing the end of his or her first term accounts for roughly 5 percent of the state's economic growth or failure, and that national policymaking accounts for about 25 to 30 percent.
The rest comes down to the "constellation of industries" in that particular part of the country and in that state, Burtless said. No governor of Michigan, for example, could generate economic growth amid a decline in demand for cars and a spike in fuel costs. Nor could a governor of Washington control a drop in sales of Boeing's airplanes.
"Bad things can happen to good presidents and good governors, and good things can happen to bad presidents and bad governors," Burtless said. "If a president takes office with a recession in the offing, there's nothing he can do to stop it. Governors have even fewer levers to make an impact, especially in just one four-year term."
Right now, however, the GOP governors appear to be taking an early lead in the race to set the narrative. One recent Quinnipiac University poll found that, among Ohio voters who think the economy is getting better, 74 percent said Kasich deserved some or a lot of credit. Only 33 percent in the survey said Obama deserved some or a lot of credit.
"Frankly, voters aren't giving Obama credit for much of anything right now," said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of The Rothenberg Political Report. "And if his standing and the general mood of the electorate improves, it will only help incumbent governors, because voters will be less inclined to throw people out of office." P
This article appears in the January 11, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Who Owns the Recovery?.