Want to be president? Go south, young man

May 05, 2002|By Theo Lippman Jr.

JONATHAN CHAIT writes in the New Republic that "at a moment when the[Democratic] party is casting about for a leader to define it against a popular president and [Sen. John] McCain [of Arizona] is casting about for a home after his virtual expulsion from the GOP, there is an obvious solution to both dilemmas: John McCain ought to become a Democrat - and a presumptive front-runner for their party's presidential nomination in 2004."

I don't so presume, but Mr. McCain does have an indispensable asset that four of the six "potential Democratic presidential contenders" the Associated Press named recently don't have.

The six are Al Gore, Sens. John Edwards, John Kerry, Joseph Lieberman and Tom Daschle, and Rep. Richard Gephardt.

By "indispensable asset" I mean a home base below the Mason-Dixon line. Only Mr. Gore of Tennessee and Mr. Edwards of North Carolina have it.

Mr. Kerry of Massachusetts, Mr. Lieberman of Connecticut and Mr. Daschle of South Dakota don't even come close. Mr. Gephardt of Missouri lives in a district that is technically just south of the latitude 39 degrees 43 minutes along which the famous boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania runs, but I'm not talking surveying here.

The Mason-Dixon line is not just the boundary that settled an 18th century dispute between Maryland and Pennsylvania. It's a metaphor for a divided nation. In the 1820s, it began to be used in political speech for the North-South conflict.

It was symbolically extended west along the southern boundaries of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, then Missouri, and, as the nation's westering continued, on the straight line on the map now forming the northern boundaries of Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona, then projected on to include the population centers of southern Nevada and California.

Since 1964, in 10 straight presidential elections no candidate from above the Mason-Dixon Line has won. In four of those elections both major party candidates were from the 20 states below the line. In the other six, candidates from below opposed candidates from above.

In 1968, Richard Nixon of California defeated Minnesota's Hubert Humphrey. In 1972, Mr. Nixon defeated South Dakota's George McGovern. In 1984, California's Ronald Reagan defeated Minnesota's Walter Mondale. In 1988, Texan George H.W. Bush defeated Massachusetts' Michael Dukakis.

Those winners were all Republicans. But in 1976, Jimmy Carter of Georgia defeated Michigan's Gerald Ford. In 1996, Bill Clinton of Arkansas defeated Bob Dole of Kansas. So it's geopolitics at work, not partisanship.

Winning a substantial number of the 20 states below the Mason-Dixon has become a requirement for being elected president. The winners in each of the 10 elections from 1968 to 2000 won on average 16 of those 20 states.

The 20 become more important after every Census. In 1960, when John Kennedy of Massachusetts defeated Mr. Nixon, those states' populations entitled them to 209 electoral votes. In 2004, they will have 257. That's some base. It only takes 270 to get elected.

The losing candidates' share of the national popular vote in the North vs. South elections of '68, '72, '76, '84, '88 and '96 was under 44 percent. If the Democrats go with Mr. Daschle, Mr. Kerry, Mr. Lieberman or Mr. Gephardt in 2004, they'll be courting another landslide defeat.

Some say that Mr. Nixon was a New York candidate in 1968, since he was practicing law on Wall Street then. But every voter knew him as California pol, and he moved back before the 1972 election.

In a sense, the elections of 1952 and 1956 were won by a below-the-line candidate. Dwight Eisenhower was a resident of New York in '52, Pennsylvania in '56. But he made his reputation on the world scene, not in either of those states, and he was born in Denison, Texas. (He defeated Adlai Stevenson of Illinois both times.)

So you could say that in 12 of the last 13 presidential elections, the Southeast-Southwest half of the nation has sent one of its own to the White House. That's not just a trend, it's an imperative.

Theo Lippman Jr. was an editorial writer for The Sun.

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