How good are governors at creating jobs?

CNBC compared the candidates' track records to 40 years of job growth

Job seekers fill out forms for available job opportunities during a construction job fair.
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Job seekers fill out forms for available job opportunities during a construction job fair.

Are you better off looking for a job than you were four years ago?

If not, there's an unusually long list of current and former governors from both parties promising to help you out if you elect them president.

So far the campaign rhetoric has remained close to the historical positions espoused by the two parties. While both have pledged to help raise the standard of living of middle-class voters, the two parties typically take a different approach.

"The Republicans believe that if you lower taxes — especially on business — they'll create more jobs and by creating more jobs they'll create more income," said private economist Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Advisors. "The Democrats think the problem isn't necessarily jobs — and the only way you get wages to rise is by forcing wages up, through support of union actions or minimum wages."

But that's not what happens once they get elected, according to a analysis of some 350 governors who have served in the 50 statehouses over the last 40 years. During that period, Republican governors, as a group, generated higher wages while Democrats have created more jobs.

Of the roughly 64 million jobs created throughout the country since January 1976, more than half have been created on a Democratic governor's watch. During periods when Republicans occupied a state's governor's mansions, overall wages posted bigger gains, in total, than the periods when Democratic governors were in office.

The Governor Boom

This year, voters have more governors to choose from than at any time since the modern primary system was established in the early 1970s.

The 2016 presidential election cycle started with 10 current or former governors in the race, including former Democratic Govs. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Martin O'Malley of Maryland. The Republican field includes Govs. Chris Christie, New Jersey; John Kasich, Ohio; and Bobby Jindal, Louisiana, and former Govs. Mike Huckabee, Arkansas; Jeb Bush, Florida; Jim Gilmore, Virginia; George Pataki, New York. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who withdrew from the race after poor poll results following the initial GOP debates.

Not surprisingly, most are heavily touting successes managing their economies, including job and wage growth. But it's not clear just how much credit — or blame — voters should assign to economic policies those governors applied while in office

Governors so have more direct control over implementing the public policies that they espouse that a member of Congress with a lone vote in a large legislative body. But once elected, governors inherit the policies of their predecessors. Even if they're blessed with a legislature controlled by their own party, it can take years to implement a new set of "pro-job" or "pro-wage" policies.

Still, there some are clear differences in the jobs and wage records of the current pack of governors running for president, especially when compared to the more than 350 governors who served (some for only a few days or weeks) at some point after Jan. 1, 1976, the earliest date for the Bureau of Labor Statistics' seasonally adjusted, state-level jobs data used for our analysis.

A strong record of job creation alone apparently isn't enough to propel a candidate to the Oval Office. Among the original 10 contenders, Texan Perry, now out of the race, leads the pack with a net gain of some 2.6 million jobs in his state during his 14 years in office.

Among the remaining contenders, Florida's Bush tops the list for job growth. During his eight years in office, the state gained 1.5 million jobs. That ranks him ahead of his brother, former President George W Bush, who created about 1.1 million jobs during his two four-year terms as Texas governor.

Deep in the pack of Republican contenders, New York's Pataki also turned in a strong showing of job growth — nearly a million new jobs — during his 12 years in office.

The rest of the pack lags considerably, including Republicans Huckabee of Arkansas (110,000 new jobs), Gilmore of Virginia (188,000); Jindal of Louisiana (78,000), Christie of New Jersey (166,000), Kasich of Ohio (190,000), and Democrats Chafee of Rhode Island (13,000) and O'Malley of Maryland (77,000).

It's not surprising that governors of large states — especially Sunbelt states such as Florida, Texas and California — top the list of biggest job gainers as rapid population growth drove those state's economic expansions.

So a better comparison between large and small states would look at the percentage change in employment — comparing job growth relative to level of employment when a governor is sworn in.

Even on a percentage basis, Perry (with job gains of 30 percent) and Floridian Bush (21 percent) turned in strong showings. Percentage gains were smaller for Pataki (12 percent) and the other governors in the race include Huckabee (9 percent), Gilmore (6 percent); Jindal (4 percent), Christie (4 percent), Kasich (4 percent), and Democrats Chafee (3 percent) and O'Malley (3 percent).

Even those comparisons, though, overlook the larger economic forces beyond a governor's control that may override state policies, no matter how well conceived.

The decline in manufacturing that has battered the nonfarm payroll numbers in Michigan, for example, stems from a series of national and global trends with much more powerful impact that any policies implemented in Lansing. On the other hand, while governors may deserve some credit for exploiting powerful job-creating forces underway in the national economy, they can hardly claim credit for initiating them.

"If you're in the middle of a housing bubble or a dot-com bubble or a natural gas shale boom, you can ride it," said Naroff. "But the question is: Did you do anything to create it?"

Given the impact of the national economy on state jobs and wages, a fairer comparison for a governor in office during a recession would be the records of the other 49 governors in office at the same time. So, to better track the performance of the current group of White House hopefuls, we also looked at how each governor's track record compared to the overall national job and wage gains at the time.