Why Don’t We Have Favorite Sons Anymore?

The primary and caucus system that we use to nominate presidential candidates is always evolving and the present forms are relatively new even in the broadest view, so it’s never a clean thing to compare today’s contests to primaries from the fifties, sixties and seventies. Still, when we do look back one thing we can see is that there used to be favorite sons who lacked national stature but were easily able to carry their home states.

To give a few examples, the Republican contest in 1952 was primarily between Ohio Senator Robert Taft and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, but Earl Warren got two-thirds of the vote in his home state of California and former Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen carried his state with a strong plurality.

The 1960 contest was pretty much an uncontested affair for sitting Vice-President Richard Nixon, but Gov. Cecil Underwood got all the delegates from his home state of West Virginia. In 1968, the same thing happened with Gov. Jim Rhodes of Ohio.

The 1964 Republican nominating contest is remembered as a battle between Barry Goldwater’s radicals and Nelson Rockefeller’s moderates, but Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. won New Hampshire and his neighboring home state of Massachusetts, and Gov. William Scranton won his home state of Pennsylvania while Rep. John Byrnes of Wisconsin received over 99% of the vote in the Badger State.

Even as recently as 1992, no one on the Democratic side seriously contended in Iowa against Sen. Tom Harkin.

I mention all this because something seems to have changed. No one thought that Bobby Jindal would have carried Louisiana had he stayed in the race. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio aren’t leading in the polls in the Sunshine State. I don’t really see any evidence that any of the eleventy billion candidates who are (or were) seeking the presidency are going to carry their home states despite being far behind elsewhere.

I mean if Carly Fiorina were favored to win California, that’d be worth talking about.

But I can’t really find in the history books anything quite like the situation that Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is facing. He’s a sitting U.S. Senator who was recently reelected. Whatever you might think about his hawkishness, he isn’t bogged down in scandal or ethical clouds. He’s a controversial figure in his home state, but he’s not immensely unpopular like Chris Christie or (especially) Bobby Jindal. Yet, he’s getting one percent in the polls in his home state. And the state party is basically telling him to take his name off the ballot to avoid complete humiliation.

This reality presents a political conundrum for Graham. He’s widely respected in the state and won the GOP Senate primary in 2014 with 57 percent of the vote — a wider margin than many pundits expected considering he faced challenges from multiple tea party candidates.

But presidential primary polls in South Carolina show Graham with about 1 percent support, far behind a long list of other names: Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush among them. Even Carly Fiorina and Mike Huckabee are polling higher.

And Graham hasn’t gained traction in the other early states, either. If he stays in the race through early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire and loses — or waits until January to withdraw — he’d go into the South Carolina primary with his name printed on the ballot and risk a result that many Republicans in the state say could damage his brand in the long term.

When “many Republicans” in your state are blabbing to an NBC reporter about you damaging your brand if you appear on the state’s ballot, that’s a clear indication that your goose is cooked. Frankly, the party figures down there who are loyal to Sen. Graham are getting irritated that they haven’t been liberated to flirt with other candidacies.

Getting back to my point, though, it’s clear that Lindsey Graham is no Tom Harkin.

After all, no one thought Harkin could win the nomination. But they knew he’d win in Iowa so they didn’t even try to beat him.

Why couldn’t Graham get the same level of support and deference? And why don’t any other long-shot candidates have that kind of juice?

Maybe Scott Walker could have fit the bill if he had stayed in. Somehow I doubt it, though.

I think our politics somehow got completely nationalized since 1992, and I’m not sure precisely why that is.

What do you think?

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.