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Morning Jay: What's Missing from the GOP Field?

6:00 AM, May 19, 2011 • By JAY COST
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There is definite discontent among plugged-in Republicans about the GOP field. From what I gather, lots of people feel as though no candidate offers the right combination of conservatism, authenticity, and excitement. Those seem to be the main grievance points.

I take people at their word on this, but I've nevertheless wondered why so many feel that way. After all, as a denizen of a small town in Pennsylvania, I'm pretty satisfied with the field. However, that got me thinking: maybe I'm satisfied with it because of where I'm from. From my perspective, here at the easternmost part of the Midwest, both Mitch Daniels and Tim Pawlenty look just fine to me. But are my feelings about the candidates really representative of the party as a whole? Maybe not.

The small towns of the Midwest used to be the backbone of conservative Republicanism, supporting good conservatives like William McKinley and Robert Taft before there was a Ronald Reagan or even a Barry Goldwater in the field. However, the center of gravity in the conservative wing of the party has most certainly shifted since then, out of these small towns and into the Sunbelt.

We can appreciate just how dramatic the geographical shift of power in the Republican party has been by examining the following chart, which tracks the percentage of total delegates that three major regions (the Northeast, the Midwest, and the Sunbelt) have had at select conventions going back to 1908.

There has been a substantial transformation over the years. The Midwest and the Northeast once controlled the party -- the Midwest had the votes while the Northeast had the money. The Sunbelt (which in 1908 was really just cotton country in Dixie and deserts out West) had relatively little sway in party affairs.  In fact, the 1908/Sunbelt cell actually overestimates the true force of the region. The Republican party had little to no presence in the South at the time of William Howard Taft's nomination in 1908. The Southern delegates to the national convention were little more than the recipients of federal patronage who did not actually represent public sentiment from back home. They were usually just in the pocket of the incumbent president, or whoever else was the master of the spoils system at the time.

But as the last century has come and gone, we've seen a geographical revolution in the Republican party. The booming postwar economy sent voters South and West, and eventually transformed all of the Sunbelt states into either swing states or safely Republican enclaves (with California having now swung back to the Democrats). 

Unsurprisingly, the shift in regional strength over the years has had an effect on whom the party nominates. Here is a list of party nominees from 1908 to 1956, when the Northeast and Midwest more or less ran the show.

Note that the only candidate from the Sunbelt here is Herbert Hoover (who grew up in Iowa). Since 1960 there has been a considerable change in regional emphasis:

Now, compare this second list to the major candidates for the nomination this year: Daniels and Pawlenty are from the Midwest, Jon Huntsman is from Utah (which borders the Sunbelt but is not really part of it), and Mitt Romney is from the Northeast. All of the major would-be Sunbelt contenders -- Haley Barbour, Jeb Bush, and Mike Huckabee -- have dropped out, leaving from the region only Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul, none of whom yet appear to be big league contenders.

I can't help but wonder if this is why so many conservatives feel dissatisfied with the current crop. Regional affinity is an underdiscussed, but hugely important factor in national electoral politics. It matters in so many ways.

For instance, it can influence whether a voter and candidate think about the world and politics the same way, whether they frame and discuss issues the same way, and whether they have similar intensity levels when it comes to politics. Even differences in accent can matter -- one group of voters can view a candidate as one of their own while another group harbors suspicions, thanks in part to a candidate's dialect. Another factor that can depend on regional background is what we might call a candidate's ideological range of movement. Republicans from the Sunbelt tend to come from much more conservative states (especially when it comes to labor laws), which enables statewide leaders to govern comfortably from the right. Meanwhile, leaders from the Midwest and especially the Northeast have to contend with an electorate much more full of liberals and union workers.

In other words, those three big grievances -- conservatism, authenticity, and excitement -- could all be consequences (in part) of a substantial regional mismatch between voters and candidates this cycle.

In conclusion, it's fair to say that a field without a prime Sunbelt contender is really missing something. I think this is a big reason why Rick Perry is reportedly considering a run for the White House. There is definitely a gap in the lineup. It will be interesting to see if he -- or somebody else of prominence -- ultimately runs.

What will also be interesting is if he doesn't run, and if therefore the field is essentially set now. That would mean that Sunbelt voters basically would not have a dog in this hunt (assuming that the aforementioned second tier candidates don't rise to the top), and would thus make for an enormous swing vote in terms of delegate strength. Whom will they prefer? Presumably, the most "conservative" candidate, but that really just begs the question. Whom will they view as the most conservative? Will they vote as a bloc, or will they split up? If they split, how will those cleavages manifest themselves?

I have no answers to these questions, and so far as I know there is no data set available to help us answer them. After all, what's the historical comparison here? Over the last 50 years we have regularly seen Sunbelt Republicans win the nomination, so we don't really know what the Sunbelt is going to do in a field dominated by the Midwest and Northeast (and Utah!).

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