Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Home State Hurdle

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics May 22nd, 2003

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As 2004 approaches, Democrats have plenty of factors to consider as they choose a nominee to take on President Bush. Surely, one of these is to avoid repeating the most embarrassing aspect of election night 2000. No, not the razor-thin loss in Florida, but Al Gore’s solid defeat in his own home state of Tennessee.

Most observers would concede that the home folks know a politician best – and if they will not back a presidential candidate, why should the rest of us? Similarly, if a vice-presidential nominee cannot carry his or her home state, what good is the candidate to the party ticket?

History’s Lessons

Let’s first take a look at the lessons taught by the 26 presidential elections from 1900-2000. Table 1 summarizes the successes and the failures of the major-party nominees in carrying their home states in the general elections over the past century. As it turns out, Gore’s record is not all that unusual in American history.

There is a clear difference between the America of 1900-1944, and the post-World War II United States. Simply put, candidates for president and vice president were far more likely to lose their home states in the earlier period-incredibly, nearly HALF the time! Democratic presidential candidates from 1900 to 1944 saw their home states go Republican in six of 12 elections, and the GOP experienced the same embarrassment in five of 12 contests. Vice-presidentially, the record wasn’t much better: six of 12 Democratic VP-nominees lost their home states, along with four of 12 Republicans. In 1900, 1904, 1916, 1920, and 1924, the Democrats lost the home states of BOTH members of their national tickets. Republicans achieved the same dubious distinction in 1912, 1932, 1936, and 1940. The case of President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 is especially remarkable. Wilson and Vice President Thomas R. Marshall achieved a narrow reelection despite losing Wilson’s home state of New Jersey and Marshall’s Indiana – the only time in American history that a ticket has won the White House while losing BOTH home states. (Just one other president besides Wilson lost his home state but still captured the White House: James K. Polk of-you guessed it-Al Gore’s Tennessee, in 1844.)

After World War II, national tickets turned in more respectable showings in the home-state category. Of the 28 major-party presidential nominees, only four have lost their states, and all were Democrats: Adlai Stevenson of Illinois in 1952 and 1956, George McGovern of South Dakota in 1972, and Gore in 2000. The GOP’s perfect record of 14 consecutive home wins from 1948 to 2000 is historically impressive-the longest home-state winning streak for any major party. (The Republicans also racked up 13 home-state presidential wins in a row from 1860-1908.)

In the vice-presidential home-state sweepstakes, the modern parties have not been as triumphant. Since 1948 four Democratic VP-nominees (Estes Kefauver-Tenn. in 1956, Sargent Shriver-Md. in 1972, Geraldine Ferraro-N.Y. in 1984, and Lloyd Bentsen-Texas in 1988) have been unable to do their duty for their ticket. Five GOP VP-nominees also failed: Earl Warren-Calif. in 1948, Henry Cabot Lodge-Mass. in 1960, William Miller-N.Y. in 1964, Spiro Agnew-Md. in 1968, and Jack Kemp-N.Y. in 1996.

The most revealing and perhaps predictive conclusion from our look at the 1948-2000 era is as follows. On 13 occasions, either a presidential or vice-presidential candidate failed to win his or her home state. In 12 of these 13 instances, the ticket lost in November. (The sole exception was Richard Nixon’s paper-thin victory in 1968, despite Agnew’s loss of Maryland.) The lesson is compelling: Clearing the home state hurdle matters.

So what about 2004?

Democratic Hurdles in 2004

Surprisingly, as Table 2 indicates, only four of the nine Democratic presidential candidates have good to excellent chances to carry their own home states: Dean, Graham, Kerry and Lieberman. And three of the states they represent (hail from?) are nearly guaranteed to be in the Democratic column for any mainstream candidate: Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont. (It’s still odd to see Vermont in this Democratic company. After all, only Vermont and Maine never voted for FDR in any of his five runs for national office, for VP in 1920 and president in 1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944.) The fourth, Florida, might well back its favorite son, Bob Graham, although this is NOT a sure thing. Jeb Bush and the Sunshine State’s growing Republicanism would make 2004 Graham’s toughest race, and if George W. Bush is reasonably popular in November 2004, Bush could well defeat Graham in conservative Florida. Of the major Democratic candidates, John Edwards of North Carolina and Dick Gephardt of Missouri have the highest home state hurdles to jump. Edwards is relatively unknown in his own state, and his presidential ambitions appear to have struck many Tar Heels as too much, too soon, for a new senator. Gephardt has never even run statewide in Missouri, and the Show Me State is arguably more conservative than Gephardt.

Much can change in the next year, of course, but one thing is certain. Democrats will be watching all their nominee wannabes to make sure that, while they know Al Gore and they are friends of Al Gore, they are no Al Gore when it comes to carrying their home state.