Reporting and technical writing. Tuesday - Sep 19, 2017

Who Lost Their Own State?

Mitt Romney now joins the ranks of 14 presidential candidates whose loss in the electoral college was arguably rooted in losing touch with their folks back home.

If your own people won’t support you, can you still win? In Romney’s case, he couldn’t win enough voters in Michigan or in Massachusetts to keep himself off of this list. But even if he had won his own states, the 27 total electoral votes that he would have gained would only have earned him 233 electoral votes against Obama’s would-be 305. So that insurmountable point spread actually keeps him from an even worse distinction that only two candidates in election history can claim — a victory at home would’ve actually won them the election.

So much was made of the messy Florida recount of 2000, however, Al Gore could have completely avoided that fiasco if he’d just won his own state of Tennessee. His home state’s 11 electoral votes could have pushed him to an unquestionable 277 electoral vote victory, leaving George W. Bush with just 260. Ralph Nader’s presence didn’t factor into the electoral math. But Gore didn’t do that. He didn’t wow his own home crowd and hardly campaigned there. He didn’t make them see him as their hometown hero in the way that the people of Arkansas saw Bill Clinton as their guy (Arkansas has been a deep red state ever since). Gore’s supporters who still view the recount as a robbery, a blatant hijack of justice, must concede that winning at home wasn’t as much a part of Gore’s strategy as it was for Bush (or Clinton, Reagan, Carter, Johnson, the list goes all the way back to George Washington of Virginia).

Not since 1888 had a candidate won the popular vote yet still lost by electoral math. It can be argued that because incumbent president Grover Cleveland didn’t win his home state of New York, thus forfeiting 36 votes, he lost the top office (four years later he reclaimed the presidency by — you guessed it — winning at home). In the 1876 and 1824 elections, when the loser won the popular vote, the loser still managed to win in their own home state. Even in electoral landslides, many losing candidates could still say, “Well hey, at least I won my own state,” like Mondale in 1984 or Goldwater in 1964.

In contrast, there have been two cases when a candidate won the overall election despite losing his own home state. New Jersey Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 victory was by a slim margin over Republican Charles Evans Hughes. Hughes actually won his own home state of New York but still lost the popular vote to Wilson as well as the electoral math by just 23 votes. And in 1844, Democrat James Polk lost his home state Tennessee to Kentucky’s Whig Party nominee, Henry Clay. Yet Polk still won decisively in the electoral count. Neither of these cases affected the mathematical outcome in the electoral college.

1. 4 additional losing candidates are not included in this list because the winner was from their same state.
2. 1792 and 1789 not included because electoral rules were different when John Adams lost his home state Massachusetts to George Washington.
3. The current count of 538 electoral votes has been the total since 1980, Reagan vs Carter.

Data sources
4. Dates of U.S. Presidential Election “Events”: 1789 to the present