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From the Midwest to the West Wing

The formula for a winning GOP candidate.

Jun 6, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 36 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
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For Republicans, the ideal home states would be Florida, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—Florida, because it’s huge and very much in play; Pennsylvania and Wisconsin because they’re large, Democratic-leaning, and yet winnable for the GOP. (Ohio would also be advantageous, but it’s less than two-thirds the size of Florida and already leans Republican; it’s an ideal state for a Democrat to be from.) Among top-tier prospective Republican presidential candidates, no one is from Pennsylvania or Florida. (Rick Santorum is from Pennsylvania but would need to make a big move to get to the top tier.) Paul Ryan, however, hails from Wisconsin.

Among top-tier prospective nominees, Ryan would have the biggest geographical advantage in a race against Obama. To win the presidency, Ryan would just have to win his home state and hold GOP-leaning Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. That would be it: election over, Obama defeated, Ryan’s pen poised to sign the Obamacare-repeal legislation.

Ryan’s advantage in Wisconsin as a home-state candidate would fundamentally change the dynamic in that “must win” Democratic state. A Public Policy Polling survey in March showed Ryan having a higher net favorable rating in Wisconsin among independents, among Republicans, and among all respondents, than any other prospective GOP candidate included in the survey. Additionally, Wisconsin borders three other states in play: Michigan, Minnesota, and the important toss-up state of Iowa. The Badger State also isn’t far removed, geographically or culturally, from Ohio or western Pennsylvania.

Ryan’s competitiveness in Wisconsin would open up scenarios in which he could potentially survive even the loss of the most important state on the electoral map: Florida. Without winning Florida, a Republican who doesn’t win Wisconsin would absolutely have to win Pennsylvania. Even then, he or she would face an uphill battle, as Pennsylvania is worth 9 fewer electoral votes than the Sunshine State. Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes, however, would more than make up that difference. Moreover, Ryan could potentially survive the loss of both Florida and Pennsylvania​—​which no other potential GOP nominee could realistically do​—​by sweeping Wisconsin, Nevada, and the three toss-up states of Colorado, Iowa, and New Hampshire. This would be a tall order, but a feasible one if the youthful and engaging Ryan were to catch fire in the West.

The only other potential top-rung nominee who would enjoy similar geographical advantages would be Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty. But Minnesota would be harder for a Republican to win than Wisconsin, it doesn’t border Michigan, and it’s a little farther removed from Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The Chicago Tribune editorialized last week that Mitch Daniels’s decision not to run left “a big hole in the field .  .  . representing certain qualities that can be thought of as Midwestern. And it may be that the person who wins the election next year will be the candidate who displays those attributes most convincingly.”

Indeed, more than any other election in recent memory, the 2012 election clearly calls for a candidate who possesses the characteristically Midwestern virtues of prudence, integrity, humility, and​—​most of all​—​fiscal responsibility. Not so coincidentally, it also calls for a candidate who can carry the Midwest, the most crucial region on the electoral map. It almost goes without saying that the candidate who possesses the former can win the latter​—​and, with it, the White House.

Jeffrey H. Anderson was the senior speechwriter for Secretary Mike Leavitt at the Department of Health and Human Services.

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