In 2008, GOP May Face ‘Northeastern Liberal’ Problem of Its Own

Posted February 9, 2005 at 3:45pm

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s defeat last year reminded everyone that the Democratic Party hasn’t elected a Northeasterner to the presidency since John F. Kennedy in 1960. But Northeast Republicans haven’t fared any better. In fact, they have done considerably worse, an ominous fact for some touted 2008 hopefuls. [IMGCAP(1)]

Yet the early handicapping in the ’08 Republican race for president often includes at least three top candidates from the region: former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and New York Gov. George Pataki.

Giuliani is more than a politician. He’s a celebrity who will forever be identified with his and the nation’s response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center.

Romney, with movie star good looks, ran the Salt Lake City Olympics before winning Massachusetts’ governorship. He has enough money to jump-start a very serious presidential campaign, and his political action committee has already spread seed money around to dozens of Republicans in the critical early primary state of South Carolina.

Pataki is a successful three-term governor who also drew applause for the way he handled himself after the terrorist attacks, although his star has faded of late.

But the three Northeasterners face a problem bigger than each other, or the other GOPers interested in the White House, or their more moderate ideology, though those are certainly roadblocks as well.

Their biggest challenge is history.

The last Northeast Republican elected to the White House was Calvin Coolidge, a Vermonter who was vice president under President Warren G. Harding. Coolidge became president when Harding died in office in 1923, and he was nominated and elected in his own right in 1924. (George H.W. Bush had New England roots but definitely was a Texan.)

In fact, the two Republican presidents from the Northeast before Coolidge — New Yorkers Theodore Roosevelt and Chester Arthur — also were vice presidents who succeeded to the nation’s top job upon the death of the president (Ohioians William McKinley in 1901 and James Garfield in 1881).

Which means that no Northeastern Republican not already the commander in chief has ever been elected president.

But talking about winning the White House is putting the cart before the horse. Couldn’t one of the Northeast trio at least win the Republican nomination?

Sure, but again they would have to overcome a strong historical trend.

The last Northeast Republican nominated by his party for president was Thomas E. Dewey, who carried his party’s banner in 1944 and 1948. (He lost. Both times.)

In the 14 elections since then, the party has nominated men from Texas four times (George W. Bush and his father), Californians five times (Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan), Kansans three times (Dwight Eisenhower and Bob Dole), and one each from Michigan (Gerald Ford) and Arizona (Barry Goldwater).

Unfortunately for Giuliani, Pataki and Romney, Dewey’s road to the nomination is hardly a model for them.

Dewey, a three-term governor of New York, ran for president in a very different Republican Party. In the 1940s, the Northeast and Midwest constituted the heart and soul of the GOP. Today’s Republican base, the South, was not a major factor in the party’s politics.

The 1948 Republican convention, which nominated Dewey, included 1,094 delegates, of whom 297 (27 percent) came from nine states in the Northeast (stretching from Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the south to Maine in the north). In contrast, the 11 states of the Confederacy accounted for only 189 delegates (17 percent).

The largest delegation at that Philadelphia convention came from Dewey’s New York (97 delegates), with Pennsylvania second (73 delegates) and Illinois a distant third (56 delegates). The largest Southern delegation at the 1948 convention was from Texas. But its 33 delegates were fewer than those of four states in the Northeast, including New Jersey and Massachusetts, both of which had 35 delegates.

In 2004, the same nine Northeastern states accounted for 395 delegates, or 16 percent, of the convention’s 2,509 delegates. The 11 states of the Confederacy, however, cast 717 votes at the convention, about 29 percent of the total.

New York’s delegation increased from 97 in 1948 to 102 in 2004. Florida’s, in contrast, ballooned from 16 delegates in 1948 to 112 in 2004, making it now the second largest delegation from the South, behind Texas’ 138 delegates.

These trends and numbers don’t prove that Giuliani, Romney or Pataki can’t win the GOP nomination or the presidency. They do, however, suggest that candidates from the Northeast face considerable hurdles in winning their party’s nomination, and therefore, the White House.

In spite of electoral victories by Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine), Susan Collins (Maine) and Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), to say nothing of Republican governors now serving in New York, Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut, Northeastern Republicans are generally out of sync with their national party’s grass roots on many controversial issues, particular so-called social issues.

For Giuliani, Romney or Pataki to win the GOP nomination in 2008, one of them will need to figure out how to overcome the numbers. All three have appeal and assets. There may well be a road for one of them. But it’s not too early for them to start planning how they can reverse the curse.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.