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Without Precedent: Is the Bay State Necessary for a Romney Victory?

Mitt Romney voting in Belmont, MA, March 2012.

Mitt Romney voting in Belmont, MA, March 2012.

Massachusetts has received quite a bit of attention this election year. The Obama campaign launched an ad campaign attacking Mitt Romney’s record as governor there. This week, the campaign also announced that Massachusetts Senator John Kerry will debate President Obama in order to prepare him for the fall debates with Romney. And earlier this week, spending reports showed that both presidential campaigns have spent $45 million, or nearly a quarter of all campaign spending since last year through the first quarter, in the Bay State, mostly on political consultants and data analysis companies.  Meanwhile, instead of going after Massachusetts, Mitt Romney is claiming Michigan as his native home and saying the state would hand him the presidency. In this post, Anand Rao digs beyond the headlines to examine what effect Massachusetts could have on Romney's chances in November.

In 2002, Mitt Romney was elected governor of Massachusetts, as the voters of that “blue” state defied conventional wisdom again and chose a Republican as their state leader for the fourth consecutive time dating back to 1990. The final vote tally was not especially close, as Romney outpolled Democratic opponent and state treasurer Shannon O’Brien by more than one hundred thousand votes, out of nearly 2.2 million total votes cast. Therefore, ten years later, it would seem natural for Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, to be a shoe-in to win at least a plurality of the popular vote in Massachusetts this November as he tries to unseat incumbent President Barack Obama. After all, it’s close to an article of faith in the U.S. that sitting or former governors are popular with the voters of the states that elected them. Unlike U.S. Senators who serve in Washington, D.C., governors serve in the states themselves and develop close relations with local legislatures and the people on the ground. So Romney all the way in Massachusetts with its 11 electoral votes, right?

Not so, according to a recent Washington Post article by Philip Rucker, who cites data showing that President Obama maintains a double-digit lead in the polls over Romney in the Bay State. Rucker concludes that while Massachusetts proved to be a launching pad for Romney’s presidential ambitions, he has no concrete base of support there and is almost guaranteed to lose the state to Obama, his fellow Harvard Law School graduate. Thus, in 2012, Romney must do something that has yet to be accomplished in post-1900 U.S. presidential politics: Be elected president for the first time without winning a plurality of the popular vote (and therefore all of the electoral votes) in the state where voters had once elected the candidate in question as their governor. James Cox of Ohio (1920), Al Smith of New York (1928), Alf Landon of Kansas (1936), Thomas Dewey of New York (1944), and Adlai Stevenson of Illinois (1952 and 1956) were all major party presidential nominees who suffered the humiliation of losing in the states where they had served as governor, and they were decisively defeated in their presidential bids as well. Even when Dewey won New York in his second presidential bid, this time against incumbent President Harry Truman in 1948, he still lost the general election.

Data from twentieth century presidential elections (1904 through 2000) are neatly divided in half, as four sitting or former state governors were elected president before 1950, and another four sitting or former state governors were elected to the nation’s highest office after 1950. All of them comfortably won a plurality of the popular vote in the states they were governing or had previously governed. Theodore Roosevelt, running for president in his own right in 1904 after having succeeded to the office following the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, handily defeated Democratic opponent Alton Parker and carried New York, where he had won election as governor in 1898. Woodrow Wilson, running for president for the first time in 1912 while serving as governor of New Jersey, outpolled both incumbent President William Howard Taft and insurgent third-party candidate Theodore Roosevelt in the Garden State. Calvin Coolidge, a former governor of Massachusetts (1919-1921) who had been elected vice-president in 1920, became president in 1923 upon the death of President Warren G. Harding and defeated Democratic opponent John W. Davis in a landslide the following year. Coolidge had no trouble winning Massachusetts in 1924 along with all other Northeast states. Finally, Franklin D. Roosevelt, while serving as governor of New York in the depths of the Great Depression, defeated incumbent President Herbert Hoover in a landslide in 1932. FDR carried New York for the first of four consecutive presidential campaigns through 1944.

FDR would be the last former state governor to serve as president until 1977, when former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter entered the White House. Carter was elected in 1976 and carried his home state along with most of the South. He would repeat his success in Georgia in his re-election campaign of 1980, despite the ongoing Iranian hostage crisis of that year and the poor state of the economy. But Carter, of course, was defeated in a landslide that year by former California governor Ronald Reagan, who easily won what was by then the most populous state in the country. The pattern of sitting or former governors winning their home states on the way to national success was seen again in 1992 and 2000, as Bill Clinton of Arkansas and George W. Bush of Texas achieved their first respective presidential victories.

The one data point from the last hundred years that may give the Romney campaign a glimmer of hope is from the 1916 presidential campaign. Running for re-election, President Wilson lost New Jersey, the state he had governed from 1911 to 1913 and had also won in the 1912 election. Nevertheless, Wilson narrowly won re-election over Charles Evans Hughes, the former New York governor and Supreme Court justice. Romney, however, is not the incumbent president in 2012, which leads one to conclude that a victory by him in this year’s presidential election minus the electoral votes of Massachusetts would be an achievement without precedent in the post-1900 era.

Anand Rao is a graduate student in the Department of Politics at UVA, and a research assistant in the Presidential Oral History Program at the Miller Center.

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