Today, I want to talk about a group of voters in the GOP primary process that I call the “Post Office” Republicans.
This term has some very old origins, dating back to the days of the Solid (Democratic) South. From the end of Reconstruction in 1876 until the Eisenhower victories in the 1950s, the Republican party was mostly non-existent in the South. There were a few places where, and a few times when, that did not hold true, but by and large the GOP was not a political factor in Dixie. And yet the Republicans consistently awarded the South scores of delegates at the party’s national convention.
Whom did these delegates represent? It was not the broader Republican electorate of Dixie, which for all practical purposes did not exist (especially not after Jim Crow disenfranchised African Americans, who at the time were loyal Republicans). Instead, they were the “Post Office” Republicans: Southern recipients of federal patronage dispensed by GOP presidents, who controlled the government for 52 of the 68 years between the Civil War and the Great Depression.
This was not an insignificant group at the quadrennial convention, either. For instance, in the 1900 presidential election the 11 states of the Old Confederacy contributed less than 10 percent to Republican William McKinley’s nationwide vote total. But at the GOP convention in the summer, the Republican delegates from these states made up nearly a quarter of the total.
The “Post Office” Republicans typically favored the candidate who could deliver governmental largesse. For instance, in 1884 the “Post Office” Republicans lined up squarely behind incumbent President Chester Arthur, who had no real chance of victory but had been providing them patronage since he assumed office after James Garfield was assassinated three years prior. And most infamously, in 1912, it was William Howard Taft’s control of the Southern delegations that helped him secure re-nomination, despite Teddy Roosevelt’s sweep of the Republican primaries.
Nowadays, pretty much everybody (except me!) decries the old system as nothing but a bunch of corrupt hacks in smoke filled rooms choosing the nominee against the will of the people. But really has much changed? Well, for one thing, we still have a version of the “Post Office” Republicans.
That’s not to say that there is a class of GOP voters out there who are on the take, but it is to say that overwhelmingly Democratic areas retain outsized influence in the GOP nominating process, and the candidate who wins these areas gets a leg up in the hunt for delegates, regardless of how he does in more traditionally Republican or swing areas.
The reason has to do with the decision of many states to allocate convention delegates based upon who wins a congressional district. This means that urban districts full of what Michael Barone calls “gentry liberals” get plenty of delegates despite having few Republican voters. Even more pronounced is the heavy allocation of delegates to minority-majority districts dominated by African Americans and in some cases Hispanics. GOP voters who happen to live in these areas get a bigger say than fellow Republicans in redder districts because it takes fewer votes to win delegates here.
In other words, the concept of “one person, one vote” does not apply in the race for delegates. Not even close. And this makes a huge difference.
To appreciate what I mean, consider the following set of graphs. They track the top vote getter in each congressional district in Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio – all of which awarded at least some of their delegates based upon who won which congressional districts. The idea here is that in heavily Democratic areas, it will take fewer (and in some cases a lot fewer) votes to win delegates. That’s the modern day “Post Office” Republican effect.
First, here is Illinois:
Clearly, Romney had a huge edge in these districts in Illinois, most of which are in the city of Chicago. Note the results in 1st through 5th CD’s as well as the 7th and 8th. Romney swept them all even though he won fewer than 20,000 votes in any of them. Of course, Illinois penalizes some districts that are heavily Democratic by giving them only two delegates instead of three or four, but that only mitigates what remains a very significant “Post Office” Republican effect.
Now, here is Michigan:
Here, Romney and Santorum split the "Post Office" Republican delegates, which come out of metropolitan Detroit.
Finally, here is Ohio:
Advantage Romney in the Buckeye State. Notice his victories in the 9th, 11th, and 13th Congressional districts with very few votes. Santorum countered in the 3rd, but overall the “Post Office” Republicans gave Romney a boost here.
Importantly, this is a phenomenon that is going to become more important as we move forward through the process. The reason is that both California and New York award delegates on a winner-take-all basis by congressional district, meaning that dozens of delegates will be at stake in heavily Democratic areas like Los Angeles and New York City, despite the fact that only a handful of voters will actually participate in the contest.
So that means that even in this age of enlightenment and reform, with the smoke filled rooms supposedly ventilated, it’s still good to be a “Post Office” Republican!