Who will win the marathon race to the White House? If history is the best predictor of the future, then prognosticators should carefully examine the following three conclusions about the 19 Presidents from William McKinley through George W. Bush.
First, 14 of the 19 Presidents have come from the “Big 11 States,” i.e., those with the largest number of Electoral College votes, which are California (55), Texas (34), New York (31), Florida (27), Illinois (21), Pennsylvania (21), Ohio (20), Michigan (17), New Jersey (15), Georgia (15), and North Carolina (15). These states control 271 Electoral College votes, one more than the 270 necessary to win the presidency.
The South and Sun-Belt South have produced four of our five most recent presidents, two from Texas, and one each from Georgia and Arkansas. As population has shifted from northern industrial states, sometimes called the Rust Belt, to the Sun Belt, southern strength in the Electoral College has increased. Among the “Big 11 States” are four from the South and the Sun-Belt South, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina.
Because the South and Sun-Belt South control 189 Electoral votes, this region will play a pivotal role in determining who will win the Presidential Marathon Run. That’s why Richard Nixon developed a “southern strategy,” which each succeeding President has developed in his own way. As examples, President Carter won the South in 1976, but lost a substantial portion of it four years later in his loss to President Reagan, and President Clinton chose a fellow southerner and Southern Baptist, Al Gore, as his Vice Presidential running mate.
Senators Obama and Clinton come from two of the “Big 11 States,” Illinois and New York, respectively, while Senator McCain comes from the Sun-Belt South, Arizona. So who will win the Presidential Marathon Run? Fundamentally the prospective nominees face a reversal of geographic roles.
- Either Senator Obama or Senator Clinton would need to win a substantial portion of the “Big 11 States” and also penetrate the South and Sun-Belt South.
- Senator McCain would need to win the South and Sun-Belt South and also penetrate the “Big 11 States.”
Second, 18 of the 19 Presidents have identified with a mainstream Protestant denomination. Interestingly in 1952 General Eisenhower, who had no religious affiliation, became a Presbyterian, and his opponent, Adlai E. Stevenson, a Unitarian, became a Presbyterian, which is more within the comfort zone of mainstream Protestantism.
On two counts, Senator Obama’s church affiliation places him at least superficially outside the Protestant mainstream. First his denomination, the United Church of Christ, is generally recognized as the most liberal Protestant denomination in America. Second, his local church affiliation, Trinity United Church of Christ, emphasizes “black liberation” theology, which is clearly outside the mainstream of American religious thought, especially among whites, but also among many blacks. Senators Clinton and McCain have religious affiliations within the Protestant mainstream, Methodist and Episcopal, respectively.
Change, however, is on the horizon. Roman Catholics, whose population has greatly increased, especially in the “Big 11 States,” now play a greater role in presidential politics. Likewise, African-Americans have increased their influence in presidential politics along with Hispanics. Again each of these groups has a sizeable population in the “Big 11 States,” and Blacks also constitute a significant voting force in the South. These emerging groups could influence the type of Vice Presidential nominees the two parties may choose.
Third, 13 of the 19 Presidents have graduated from our nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities, including Harvard (3), Yale (3), Princeton (1), Stanford (1), Michigan (1), Amherst (1), West Point (1), Naval Academy (1), and Georgetown (1). As alumni of Harvard, Yale, and the Naval Academy, respectively, Senators Obama, Clinton, and McCain fit this pattern.
The political dynamics of presidential backgrounds – geographic, religious, and educational – play a sometimes overlooked and underestimated role in the marathon run to the White House. Prognosticators overlook them at their peril.