LOST CAUSE

06.13.12

No Home-Field Advantage for Mitt Romney

The Republican with roots in three blue states gives up on all of them, writes John Avlon.

There are a lot of things different about this presidential campaign: an African-American incumbent running against a Mormon, most obviously. But on a more mundane level, there is uncharted strategic territory as well: never before has a presidential candidate written off their home state.

Or all of them, in Mitt Romney's case.

Despite headquartering his campaign in Boston, the former governor of Massachusetts isn't going to win his home state this fall. More significantly, he isn't going to try.

Ditto California, the state where he owns a beachfront La Jolla home complete with a $55,000 car elevator. And likely Michigan, the state of his birth, where his father served two terms as governor.

Perhaps no other detail quite highlights Romney's obvious personal disconnect with the conservative populist base. Sure, Romney is socially conservative as a matter of faith, a devout family man who doesn’t curse or smoke or drink. But more formatively, he is a product of Harvard Business School and Bain Capital. As a quarter-billionaire, he’s part of the private-jet set, and his homes have tended to be in decidedly blue states, hobnobbing with the very same coastal elites the conservative populist base has traditionally hated. Shorter version: he isn't a fan of NASCAR, but some of his best friends are owners.

Video screenshot

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It would give Romney a connection to the states that voted against him should he win the White House. Red and blue is more a political than a personal distinction in his experience—after all, he calls blue states home.

But writing off his home states seems historically unprecedented. To be clear, past presidential candidates have lost them, most recently Al Gore in 2000 when winning Tennessee would have put him over the top.

But even Walter Mondale won Minnesota in Reagan's 49-state reelection romp. And while George McGovern lost South Dakota against the 1972 Nixon high tide, as a matter of pride, at least he tried to win it.

As it turned out, McGovern only won Massachusetts, spurring the “Don’t Blame Me, I’m from Massachusetts” bumper stickers that were briefly in vogue around Chappaquiddick.

Of course, Massachusetts hasn't voted Republican since Reagan in 1984. But between Bill Weld and Mitt Romney, it had 16 consecutive years of Republican governors. It has a Republican senator now in Scott Brown, who’s running neck-and-neck against Democratic star Elizabeth Warren. But Mitt Romney for president is a nonstarter, despite headquartering his campaign in the North End of Boston.

The people who know the candidate best are those least likely to elect him president.

You’ve got to go back to 1904 to find anything like a similar circumstance, when the hapless former judge Alton B. Parker was the Democratic nominee against fellow New Yorker Theodore Roosevelt. Parker ended up winning the then-solid Democrat South, but his home state was decidedly unfriendly territory.

If Romney hadn’t started shifting his social positions to the right when he was governor—especially on choice and stem-cell research—he might have held on to a fighting chance in Michigan. But his preemptive pander on letting the auto industry go bankrupt helped put a stake in that electoral option.

Still, there is an electoral scenario where Romney’s summer home on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire could prove his saving grace. His Northeastern roots helped him claim favorite-son status in the New Hampshire primary, against a cadre of candidates hostile to the region, and could pay off there again in the general election.

But beyond the Live-Free-or-Die summer-home scenario, the fact that Mitt Romney is a political alien in his own home states is a fascinating sign of the times for the GOP. That a northeast governor has to renounce his roots to have a prayer of winning the Republican primaries translates to this: the people who know the candidate best are those least likely to elect him president.