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Memo to the 2016 GOP: Winning Your Home State Matters

Losing at home is not the way to win the White House. Just ask Al Gore or Mitt Romney. So the Republican contenders all have some work to do—and some cultural baggage to deal with.

05.05.14 9:45 AM ET

For the moment, Hillary Clinton appears to be floating above it all, aided by a cast of Republican 2016 aspirants who appear incapable of nailing down their respective home states. Polls out of Florida show incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio and former governor Jeb Bush both trailing Clinton. The story in Wisconsin is no different, as Gov. Scott Walker and Rep. Paul Ryan fare no better against the former first lady and secretary of state. Meanwhile, Clinton leads all comers in Arkansas, her old home state, except for ex-governor and Florida transplant Mike Huckabee.

Note to presidential wannabes: Losing your home state on Election Day is not the way to win the White House. Just ask Al Gore or Mitt Romney. Sure, Gore won the 2000 popular vote, and many people believe he won Florida, but in Tennessee, he lost by nearly four points. To put things into perspective, had Gore won his home state, Florida would have been relegated to a footnote.

Fast-forward to 2012, when home and heart meant very different things to Republicans Romney and Ryan. Romney lost Massachusetts, where he went to school and was a one-term governor; next-door New Hampshire, where he owns a vacation home and closed out his campaign on Election Eve; Michigan, where he grew up; and California, where his cars have their own elevator. Ryan’s story was no more uplifting, with the Badger State and even Ryan’s hometown of Janesville going for President Obama and Vice President Biden.

That the 2016 GOP contenders lag Clinton and cannot count on holding on to their respective home states should not surprise. Most of the Republican field comes from purple or blue states, and their proven ability to win on rugged terrain is then extrapolated into a dream of national political viability and victory. But it shouldn’t be.

At least two things are working against these Republicans. First, there’s that thing called the culture wars, which the Republicans have been losing for almost a decade, as single women nearly rival white born-again voters as a voting bloc, and religious “nones” and “others” now constitute almost a fifth of the electorate.

Standing outside the Beacon Theatre on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 2004, then-Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt told me she saw the coming election as a culture war. At that moment, I knew that if Feldt were right, then John Kerry’s presidential bid was lost. One only needed to look at the box office success of Mel Gibson’s 2004 Passion of the Christ to figure out that back then, anyway, that most of the country wasn’t singing from Feldt’s or Planned Parenthood’s hymnal.

These days, it’s a different story. The country has moved leftward culturally, though the culture wars are far from over. Practically speaking, that means when a Republican vies for the presidency, he stands to carry the GOP’s cultural baggage, even if he comes from Florida, the Midwest, or the Northeast.

And to be sure, it’s not just about singles and the religiously unaffiliated. Take Columbus, Ohio, for example—home of Ohio State, the Buckeyes, and the late Woody Hayes. As The Wall Street Journal recently reported, “in Franklin County, a mature-suburb county that holds Columbus, Ohio, the population grew by 12% and median household income climbed by about $8,000 over the same period. Democratic voting also surged: Mr. Obama took 60% of the county vote in 2012, compared with 49% for Mr. Gore in 2000.”

Second, governors aren’t senators or presidents. Voters prize gubernatorial competence above gubernatorial ideology. Before Chris Christie self-immolated over Bridgegate, his greatest strength was his perceived ability to get things done. New Jersey voters reelected him in spite of his being a Republican, not because of it.

The same is true in Wisconsin, which has remained open to Republican reformers occupying the governor’s mansion but last voted for a Republican presidential candidate in 1984. By contrast, in Virginia, Democratic crony-capitalist and Clinton buddy Terry McAuliffe defeated Republican Ken Cuccinelli because Cuccinelli emerged as a strident culture warrior who lost the high-end Republican suburban vote that otherwise would have put him over the top.

Still, that does not mean the GOP is doomed to lose its third presidential election in a row. For starters, presidential three-peats don’t come easy. The last time someone pulled that off was George H.W. Bush, who beat Mike Dukakis in 1988 and won what essentially was a third Reagan term.

Next, elections for an open presidential seat are referenda on the incumbent. On Election Day 2000, President Clinton’s approval rating was north of 57 percent, and Gore won a plurality of ballots cast. In 2008, fewer than three in 10 voters approved of President George W. Bush, and the Democratic ticket ended up with a clear win among the flesh-and-blood electorate, and the Electoral College.

These days, Obama’s approval numbers are in the low 40s, with his favorability rating under water. For the GOP, that translates into hope, but for Clinton, these factoids do not pose insurmountable barriers.

In Florida, a recent Quinnipiac poll found Hillary Clinton leading Jeb Bush among independents. More tellingly, the poll showed her as tied among whites with college degrees and only trailing by 11 percent among whites without a B.A. In 1996, President Clinton beat Bob Dole in Florida while losing its white vote by only 3 points.

If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, she will win her home state of New York, her birth state of Illinois, and possibly Arkansas—all helped by being the candidate closest to America’s cultural center. The GOP has some heavy lifting ahead.