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Politics / CAMPAIGN 2012

Home is Where the Votes Are

Mapping the 2012 presidential field can get complicated.

They may be without a fixed address now, but the 2012 presidential hopefuls know which one they want.(Liz Lynch)

photo of Beth Reinhard
May 20, 2011

When Newt Gingrich wanted to broadcast his White House ambitions, he summoned the national media to the Georgia Capitol. His first speech after announcing his campaign on Twitter last week was at the Georgia Republican Party’s state convention. His campaign headquarters are right near Atlanta.

One hitch: Gingrich hasn’t lived in Georgia for more than a decade. He moved to McLean, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C., after he resigned from Congress in 1998.

The Washington insider’s efforts to anchor his campaign in Georgia is yet another example of presidential candidates using -- or in many cases, fudging -- their roots to increase their storybook appeal. What’s true in real estate is also true in presidential politics: Location matters.

 

"It’s an emblem of their character," said veteran Republican media consultant Alex Castellanos. "Are you a big-belt-buckle Texan straight-shooter who doesn’t change his mind, or the working-class son of a truck driver? Where you are from tells people who you are and lets you put a stake in the ground."

But in a society that's increasingly footloose, that's become more difficult for politicians to do. Down-home appeal is tricky for a few of the potential 2012 candidates, who, through acquiring wealth and forging successful careers, have strayed from their native turfs. Consider:

  • Mitt Romney owns homes in Massachusetts, where he was governor, as well as in New Hampshire and California. He also lays claim to Michigan, where he was born and his father served as governor. He never mentions the Left Coast beachfront mansion; he chose the Midwestern state known for driving the American economy -- not the famously liberal bastion where he was elected -- for his 2008 campaign launch and his recent health care speech.
  • Jon Huntsman spent the last two years in China as the U.S. ambassador, recently bought a home in Washington, D.C., and is still registered to vote in Utah, where he served as governor. Where to put his campaign headquarters? Beijing is out of the question, Utah is more than 10 hours and two time zones away from New Hampshire and its first-in-the-nation primary, and Washington -- well, no candidate wants to be from the epicenter of politics-as-usual. If Huntsman runs, his campaign will be headquartered in Florida, a state coveted for its vast pool of donors and 27 electoral votes -- and where Huntsman can credibly claim his wife’s roots.
  • Asked why the Gingrich campaign was based in Georgia instead of the Washington area, spokesman Rick Tyler had a ready answer: “Newt helped create the Republican party in Georgia and he represented the 6th District for 20 years.’’ Matt Towery, a longtime Gingrich ally and pollster based in Atlanta, noted that “Newt obviously doesn’t want to be seen as an inside-the-Beltway person, and the truth is that he has a tremendous following in Georgia. People here don’t call him Mr. Speaker. They call him Newt.’’

The biggest homebody in the 2012 field is Tim Pawlenty, who has never lived outside of Minnesota. What would be seen as provincial in some lines of work is a huge plus in politics, and the heartland will play a starring role in Pawlenty’s campaign.

"Gov. Pawlenty's blue-collar upbringing in a meat-packing town and successful record as a conservative leader in a historically Democratic state is at the core of his appeal," said Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant. "The more voters get to know his story and record, the more they like and support him."

For decades, candidates have used their home turf to weave a compelling narrative about themselves. At the 1992 Democratic convention, Bill Clinton memorably declared, “I still believe in a place called Hope’’ -- even though he spent most of his childhood in the less poetically named Hot Springs, Ark. Former Gov. Jimmy Carter charmed voters by pitching himself as a simple peanut farmer from Plains, Ga. George W. Bush bought a ranch in Texas shortly after he began campaigning for president and frequently allowed himself to be photographed in a cowboy hat, clearing brush.

Look no further than President Obama for evidence of the important role geography plays in political image-making. His exotic upbringing -- born in Hawaii to an African father and a Kansan mother, with part of his childhood spent in Indonesia -- helped him sell himself as a political outsider who could bring change to Washington. But his unconventional heritage also gave critics fodder to attack him as un-American, leading the White House to take the extraordinary step of releasing his birth certificate more than two years into his presidency.

Similarly, much of former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s mystique centers on her anti-establishment image as a rugged frontierswoman from Alaska. Awkward: Her political action committee is headquartered in the Washington area frequently mocked by Palin and loathed by gridlock-weary voters.

It can get confusing. So here are a few guidelines for geographically challenged candidates:

Rule No. 1: Never, ever be from Washington. When Al Gore’s presidential bid was floundering in late 1999, his headquarters was moved to Tennessee, the state he had represented in Congress, in an attempt to jump-start his campaign. President Obama’s reelection headquarters will be 600 miles away from the White House in Chicago, where he still owns a home. Both were smart moves, according to Democratic consultant Tad Devine, a senior strategist to Sen. John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign who says he regrets not running it out of Boston.

Rule No. 2: Don’t cede home state advantage. Probably the biggest knock against Rick Santorum’s presidential bid is that the former senator didn’t win reelection in his home state of Pennsylvania. Republican George H. W. Bush scored a coup in 1988 when he announced an endorsement from the Boston police union in the home state of his rival, Democrat Michael Dukakis. “When your own hometown is not for you, it raises real questions in the minds of voters,’’ said Devine.

Rule No. 3: Don’t share. Having to share a state means having to split votes and donors. Huntsman and Romney, both Mormons, are expected to jockey for support in Utah. Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann both live in Minnesota. But Bachmann has a geographical bonus -- she was born in Iowa, which holds the nation’s first caucus. Which leads us to...

Rule No. 4: If at all possible, live in Iowa, New Hampshire, or a state nearby. Calling herself a seventh-generation Iowan, as Bachmann frequently does when she visits, is a guaranteed applause line. Dukakis, Kerry, and Paul Tsongas were all Massachusetts Democrats who won the primary in New Hampshire, which shares a media market with their home state. Tom Harkin, the Iowa senator who ran for president in 1992, is probably the best example of a candidate who had such a clear home-state advantage that the rest of the field wrote the state off.

Putting Obama’s 2008 headquarters in Chicago allowed him to make frequent trips to Iowa and easily dispatch volunteers and supplies into the state.

“There are a lot of regional loyalties, and there’s a comfort level with candidates who seem to speak the language and understand their issues,’’ Devine said. “Almost the first word out of any politician’s mouth when he lands in a state is to remind people of any connection he has to that state.’’

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