Governors Appear More Bipartisan in 2021 State of the State Speeches

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas began his annual State of the State address like so many other governors have done in early 2021: acknowledging the hardships that Americans have faced over the past year.

“Looking back, it’s clear that 2020 was a year unlike any in our lifetime — not just for Texas and America, but for the entire world,” Abbott said on Feb. 1. “To say the pandemic is a challenge is an understatement, but to say that it has been a reversal of who we are as Texans is a misstatement.”

[READ: States Saw Record Drop in Second-Quarter Revenue as Coronavirus Derailed the Economy]

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington began his State of the State speech — which doubled as his third inaugural address — by focusing on similar themes: hardship and resilience.

“The last year has been challenging in ways none of us have ever experienced,” Inslee said on Jan. 13. “It’s the kind of moment where we are called upon to dig deep, to work together and to be resourceful like never before. Washingtonians are answering that call.”

The response to the coronavirus pandemic has been a unifier for governors across party lines in their State of the State speeches for 2021; the addresses appeared more bipartisan than they might usually be, according to a U.S. News analysis of prepared remarks.

U.S. News analyzed word frequencies in speeches from 40 governors — 23 Republicans and 17 Democrats — through Feb. 3. Most of the prepared speeches (35) were State of the State or State of the Commonwealth addresses. Three — from Republican Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina and Republican Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont — were inaugural addresses. The speech from Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania, a Democrat, was labeled as his annual budget address, while Republican Gov. Mark Gordon of Wyoming delivered a message to the state Legislature on Jan. 12. His formal State of the State speech is scheduled for March 1, pending health orders, according to spokesman Michael Pearlman.

The analysis showed many thematic similarities between Democratic and Republican governors. Unsurprisingly, all 40 governors mentioned one or more of the words “COVID,” “pandemic” or “coronavirus” at least once. Like Abbott and Inslee, they also got to the crisis early: Democrats said one of the three keywords 6.8% of the way into their speeches on average, compared to 7.5% for Republicans.

Overall, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to focus on COVID-19 and its impacts. The word “pandemic” was the fourth-most frequently used word by Democratic governors, compared to eighth for Republicans. The words “COVID” and “vaccine” were the 11th- and 46th-most frequently used words by Democrats. Those terms were used less frequently — 24th and 78th, respectively — by Republican governors. Words such as “work,” “school” and “student” were used more often than “COVID” by Republicans. Meanwhile, Democrats used the words “economy” and “budget” much more often than Republicans did.

There was overlap elsewhere, however. Both Democrats and Republicans used education terms at similar frequencies. Both parties also used the words “work” and “job” just about as often. Many governors — such as Abbott, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona and Democratic Gov. David Ige of Hawaii — discussed the theme of resilience by describing specific stories about residents. As such, both Democrats and Republicans used the words “family” and “families” at similar frequencies.

The differences between this year’s speeches and those from early 2020 are evident from a policy standpoint. Last year, 20 out of the 40 addresses analyzed by U.S. News included references to high-speed internet access or broadband projects, showing that governors were increasingly prioritizing bids to improve connectivity for disproportionately impacted communities. This year, however, the word “broadband” was used just 66 times across the 40 speeches analyzed, and “internet” was used just 18 times. The term “digital divide” — which is becoming deeper as the pandemic continues to make the world more virtual out of necessity — was used nine times across all speeches.

The format of the State of the State addresses also largely reflected the times the country is facing. Many governors performed their speeches virtually. Those who, per tradition, addressed their state legislature in person — including Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat who is leaving office to be President Joe Biden’s commerce secretary, pending Senate confirmation — did so before much smaller, socially distanced crowds of lawmakers.

[MAP: The Spread of Coronavirus]

“Last year’s State of the State address seems like a long, long time ago,” said Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont of Connecticut in his Jan. 6 speech. “Two years ago, as your new governor, you welcomed me into the ‘room where it happens.’ This year, that room has become a ‘virtual room.'”

More from U.S. News

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