Resolved: It is really, really important for presidential candidates to win their home states.
Pride is on the line, obviously, but a loss on native ground begs a legitimate question: If the candidate can’t win here, why should voters believe the candidate can win anywhere else?
In 2012, the stakes are even higher than usual because the Republican primary contest is so volatile. “Most Republicans have come to the conclusion that we have a weaker 2012 field than we would like, and that’s why you see people struggling to win even their home states,’’ said GOP consultant Alex Castellanos, who advised Romney’s 2008 campaign.
The pressure is particularly intense on Romney, the front-runner for the nomination, for the simple reason that he owns so many houses.
So far the multimillionaire former executive is two for two, winning handily on Jan. 10 in New Hampshire, where he owns a home on the shores of state’s largest lake, and much more narrowly this week in Michigan, where he was born and raised. His next test comes in Tuesday’s primary in Massachusetts, where spent his business career and served as governor. Romney also owns an oceanfront home in California, slated to vote on June 5.
“Mitt Romney would do a lot better in his home state if he didn’t have so many of them,’’ Castellanos quipped. “We think of a home state as a candidate’s bulwark, but they are also the place where they know you the best, where your magic is most transparent, and your warts are most evident.’’
Super Tuesday will also feature a home-state challenge for Newt Gingrich in Georgia, the state he represented in Congress. (He lives in Virginia, but that’s another story.) The former House speaker set the bar in a speech on Tuesday at an Atlanta Chamber of Commerce breakfast, saying, “I have to win Georgia, I think, to be credible in the race.’’
Santorum, trespassing on Gingrich's turf on Tuesday with rallies in Dalton and Atlanta, set the bar even higher. "You gotta be able to win in states that aren’t your home base,’’ he said. “You gotta be able to go out and prove that you are electable other than in your own backyard.’’
That’s what Santorum insists he did in Michigan, where Romney won the primary by 3 percentage points. But because the state apportions delegates by congressional district, Romney is getting 16 delegates while Santorum is walking away with 14. Santorum has claimed that he “won.’’ Romney’s campaign has compared him to Rumpelstiltskin “trying to spin straw into gold.’’
Pick your spin, but what’s certain is that a lomney loss in Michigan would have thrown the race into chaos.
“Everyone has heard the chatter about the necessity of Romney winning Michigan, and the fact is that he won and put those doubts to rest,’’ said Fred Malek, a prominent Republican fundraiser who is backing Romney. “He came back from a big deficit there and won, and I think he’s well positioned for Super Tuesday.’’
Romney is favored to win Massachusetts, one of the 10 Super Tuesday states voting on March 6. But the state inextricably linked with liberal politics has become an albatross for a Republican known for flip-flopping on some issues dear to conservatives. Gingrich frequently flings “Massachusetts moderate’’ as an epithet -- with alliteration to boot.
Romney’s moderate record may be a liability in primaries dominated by the GOP’s conservative wing, but it may help him attract Democrats and independents in the general election, should he become the nominee. Still, the four states he can call home – Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, and California – all voted for Barack Obama in 2008.
“Romney could lose all of his home states in the general election, which would be an unprecedented feat in the history of American politics,’’ observed Democratic consultant Mike Feldman.
Feldman knows all too well the sanctity of winning one home’s state. He was a top adviser to Al Gore, whose list of coulda-woulda-shoulda missteps that cost him the 2000 election includes the loss of his home state of Tennessee and its precious 11 electoral votes. Feldman noted that as vice president for two terms, Gore had to focus on the entire country, not just on the state he represented in the U.S. Senate. Romney, who has been running for president since 2007, has similarly put distance between himself and Massachusetts.
“Once you create a national profile, it can create problems for you back home,’’ Feldman said.
For Santorum, who lost his Senate seat in 2006, home-state politics have also proved troublesome. His landslide loss is one reason the establishment doesn’t take him seriously, yet Santorum tries to put on a positive spin by pointing to the victories that came before. Pennsylvania is viewed as one of the top battlegrounds in the general election. (Like Gingrich, Santorum lives in Virginia, and that, too, is another story.)
“If any of the three of us lose our home state – if Santorum loses Pennsylvania, Romney loses Michigan, or I lose Georgia -- you have, I think, a very, very badly weakened candidacy,’’ Gingrich said on Fox News Sunday last month.
There's that bar-setting again. Romney isn’t gunning for Gingrich’s home state but that didn’t stop his campaign from gloating over an endorsement on Tuesday from a local newspaper, the Savannah Morning News.
“Mr. Gingrich, a former Georgia congressman and House speaker who makes his home in Virginia, has the luster of a favorite son,’’ the newspaper said. “But Newt comes with more baggage than a luggage carousel at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. He may have the juice to win Georgia. But winning enough states to beat Mr. Obama in a national election is the longest of long shots.’’
The same could be said of Ron Paul, the libertarian House member from Texas, which is scheduled to vote on April 3. Could be his Alamo.
Rebecca Kaplan and Sarah Huisenga contributed