In many ways, Mitt Romney seems like a stereotypical Republican. A rich, white businessman, groomed by the party he wants to lead. The last two Republican presidents were from the same mold. Yet there’s one big difference between Romney and all the recent Republican nominees — he’s a northerner.
Since the end of World War II, Republicans have nominated two Texans (both Bushes), two Californians (Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan) and two Arizonans (Barry Goldwater and John McCain). Dwight Eisenhower spent most of his adult life outside the United States. Gerald Ford was the last northern Republican president, but he only won the Republican nomination as an incumbent president. Bob Dole, meanwhile, was a senator from Kansas.
Not only is Romney the first real northerner on the GOP ticket since Ford, he’s the first Republican nominee who made his political career in the Northeast going all the way back to New York Gov. Thomas Dewey in 1948. The Republican Party, up to that point, was a party that was strongest in the Northeast, but that was eons ago politically. Dewey’s best state in 1948 was Vermont, which was Obama’s best state outside of his semi-home state of Hawaii in 2008.
Even compared to the Reagan era, the political landscape has changed dramatically. According to Rendezvous with Destiny, Craig Shirley’s account of the 1980 campaign, President Jimmy Carter spent the last week of his campaign in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Mississippi, Missouri, Texas, Tennessee and California. These days, New York, New Jersey and California are safely Democratic and Mississippi, Texas, Tennessee and, most likely, Missouri are safely Republican. In the past two decades, Democrats became the dominant party in the densely populated coastal states and Republicans have locked up most of the South.
Part of this change has to do with regional identity. After running many Sun Belt candidates for president, Republicans are now dominant among whites in that part of the country. There’s little need to devote energy to winning over these voters. With most of the Sun Belt secure — California being the notable exception — a Republican candidate can afford to focus most of his energy on winning over swing voters in the North and Midwest.
Despite being from the Northeast, Romney’s best chances to change the electoral map may be in the industrial Midwest. He was raised in suburban Detroit and his father served as governor of Michigan. With the perspective of a northern suburbanite, Romney may be able to connect with voters in key suburban areas like Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee and Des Moines in a way that a Sun Belt Republican just couldn’t.
Chris Palko works as an assistant media analyst at Smart Media Group, a Republican political media buying agency in Alexandria, Va. He is a graduate of American University and George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
A version of this post was also published on Campaign and Election’s blog, Campaign Insider.