Time was when voters liked having a governor take the reins in the White House.
But the half dozen or so current or former governors trying to gain traction in the GOP presidential race are finding out that kind of executive experience just isn’t a big attraction anymore.
“Many — and in some states a majority — Republican primary voters since 2016 wanted an outsider,” said George Allen, a former congressman, senator and governor in Virginia. “The polling about the will of Republican primary voters indicated that: Experience as a governor, senator or almost anywhere in any government service was a negative and characterized as a part of the problem.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida figured he could crack that ceiling with his Florida miracle — a conservative revolution and an economic boom. He hasn’t. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, like Mr. DeSantis, is trying to mount a run while also running his state.
“This is not about locking yourself in a closet and rehearsing lines,” Mr. Burgum said last month at the Iowa State Fair. “I know people think performative politics is sort of the new norm, but I actually think leadership matters and leadership begins with understanding the people you are working for and when you are in the executive branch you are working for everybody.”
There also are the ex-governors: Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Mike Pence of Indiana, Chris Christie of New Jersey and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas. All of them are hoping their time as chief executives will convince voters they are ready for a promotion.
They all trail former President Donald Trump in polling, and they’re not even close to him.
Governors had long enjoyed an edge over members of Congress when it comes to presidential politics. For one thing, they have the confidence that comes with having been a chief executive. When a governor says she did something back home, it means she led. When a senator says he did something in Congress, it usually means he was one of hundreds in Congress who voted for a bill.
And while governors are usually judged on a few big issues, members of Congress have massive voting records littered with political minefields. Think of then-Sen. John Kerry’s flip-flopping on funding for the war in Iraq in the 2004 presidential campaign.
“We get a lot of the credit for this stuff that comes out of the legislature, and we get to be the one that signs it, finally,” said Republican New Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire. “But we also get a lot of the blame when something comes out and we don’t love it and we have to say no to it.”
Those pick-a-side occasions are still rare compared to members of Congress.
The governor’s advantage is so strong that the successful presidential candidates since 1964 all made their bones as governors or vice presidents — another executive-style job — except former President Barack Obama and Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump in 2016 topped a field of nine governors, a handful of senators and a smattering of private sector candidates with his iconoclastic approach to politics, and caught fire with a GOP electorate.
“Many Republican voters felt betrayed and ignored by politicians,” Mr. Allen said of Mr. Trump’s rise.
Mr. Sununu said people would be remiss to forget Mr. Trump also was able to compete for the executive mantle in that race.
“He wasn’t a governor, but he was a CEO,” he said. “So he had a lot of those similar attributes, but just from a private sector.”
Mr. Trump’s approach has proved to be so popular that others have mimicked it, namely businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, who leads most of the governors in polls.
Mr. Ramaswamy has enthralled voters with an everyman’s approach to policy, rolling out promises that resonate more at the backyard barbecue than in the halls of Congress.
He has called for eliminating entire federal agencies, including the FBI, raising the voting age to 25, and pegging the value of the U.S. dollar to the price of gold.
Mike McKenna, a GOP strategist who served as a senior legislative aide in the Trump White House, said those are the kinds of promises a governor could never make.
“He learned from Trump that 80% of this is entertainment — not policy and not execution,” said Mr. McKenna, who is also a columnist for The Washington Times. “Governors, guys like Ron DeSantis, they know they can’t do half the stuff Ramaswamy is talking about, so they are like, ‘I am not going to that.’”
Mr. Allen, governor of Virginia from 1994 to 1998, agreed.
“Yes, generally governors deal with pragmatism, reality and responsible governance within a balanced budget,” he said.
H.W. Brands, a presidential historian, attributed to recent struggles of governors to “a lack of appealing candidates.”
He said Mr. Obama was more appealing to voters than former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012 just as Mr. Trump proved to be more appealing than former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the 2016 GOP nomination race.
“Governors will make a comeback,” Mr. Brands predicted. “It’s the job closest in scope to the presidency.”
Mr. DeSantis is hoping that comeback starts now. As Mr. Trump’s closest, albeit distant rival, he argues that his successes in Florida have more staying power than what the ex-president did at the national level.
“So many people run for office, and they promise big things, and then they underdeliver on their promises,” Mr. DeSantis has said. “But we overdeliver on our promises. So when we say we’re going to do something, we do it.”
Mr. Bugrum, considered a longshot at best, says the federal government can learn a thing or two from the way his administration cut regulations that hurt taxpayers.
“As a governor, you have a front-row seat watching the federal government overreach with red tape, red tape that raises the cost of everything you do, and restricts what we can do in terms of energy in this country,” he said.
Mr. Burgum is mired in the single digits in the polling out of the early states, putting him alongside Mrs. Haley, Mr. Pence, Mr. Christie and Mr. Hutchinson.
Looking to make up ground, Mrs. Haley, who last served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N., says the policies she pursued as governor, which included enacting voter ID laws, were so effective that the Palmetto State became the “The Beast of the South East.”
Reminding voters he has been more than Mr. Trump’s former sidekick, Mr. Pence has harkened back to his days as Indiana’s top dog when he fought for conservative policies, including the expansion of charter schools and limiting abortion.
Mr. Christie talks about overcoming obstacles, including public sector unions, that had long stymied Republicans in his deep-blue state, and Mr. Hutchinson has highlighted his work cutting taxes and expanding computer science courses in Arkansas.
Voters, they believe, will put a premium on that executive experience, and hold it up as the best training to be the next commander-in-chief.
“The answer is of course governors make better presidents because the job is incredibly similar,” Mr. Sununu said. “It’s a CEO, executive leadership type job. It’s a job where you manage your different departments and public agencies. it’s a job that requires cooperation, and coordination with the legislature.”
The presidency, he said, “is the same job, just at a much bigger scale.”
• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.