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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.

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