Washington Bureau

04.24.14

GOP's Southern Base Isn't Reflected In Its Presidential Nominees

Despite its new electoral strength in the South, the Republican Party has only had one presidential nominee born and raised in that region since 1856.

The base of the Republican Party in recent elections has been white voters from the South but its presidential candidates have come from almost every state outside the former Confederacy. 

As Nate Cohn noted in the New York Times on Thursday, "a record 41 percent of Republican voters in the 2012 election hailed from the South" and, in some counties, over 90% of whites voted for Mitt Romney in the GOP ticket. But, while the Republican Party is increasingly becoming the party of Southern whites, this shift has not been reflected in the GOP's national candidates.

In fact, since the GOP's founding in 1856, the party has only had one presidential nominee who was born and raised in the South. That, of course, was the guy they nominated in 1856, Georgia native John Fremont, who acquired wealth and fame exploring California and helping lead American forces in the state during the Mexican War. Since then, only one other GOP presidential nominee was even born in one of the eleven former states of the Confederacy, Dwight Eisenhower, who was born in Texas while his family briefly lived in the Lone Star State. Eisenhower's family returned to Kansas before the 34th President's second birthday. (The only other Republican nominee with a case to southern roots is Connecticut native George W. Bush, who grew up in Midland, Texas. There is a broad debate about whether West Texas should even be considered part of the South or part of the Southwest but our 43rd President's birth in New Haven makes that debate somewhat immaterial.)

The Republican Party hasn't made up for this with its vice presidential choices either. Although Lincoln's second vice president, Andrew Johnson, was born in North Carolina and raised in Tennessee, he wasn't even a Republican. Instead, Johnson, who became president after Lincoln's assassination was a Democrat who was chosen to signify bipartisan unity in the midst of the Civil War. Besides Johnson, the only other Republican vice presidential choice to hail from south of the Mason-Dixon line was Spiro Agnew, who just technically made it, having grown up in northwest Baltimore. 

This seems primed to change in 2016 as most of the GOP's frontrunners have southern roots. Ted Cruz, despite being born in Canada, has spent most of life living in metro Houston, Rand Paul grew up in East Texas before moving to Kentucky and, of course, Mike Huckabee is the former Governor of Arkansas. But, at least for the next two years, while Democrats can point to decades of Southerners, from Al Gore and Bill Clinton on back to Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson and beyond, the Republican Party can still only point to John Fremont as the only southerner to ever represent their party on a national ticket.