McCain, Like Gore, Dukakis and Bush 41, Struggles in His Home State

A handful of polls this week have found John McCain in a surprisingly close race in his home state. One survey in Arizona puts McCain ahead by just two points, 46 to 44 percent. Another has him ahead by five, 51 to 46, and a third gives him a four-point edge, 48 to 44.
Others show McCain with a little more breathing room, but still leading by only single digits.

Obviously, McCain should be faring better in a state that has elected him to the Senate four times, although it is worth noting that had McCain not been the G.O.P. nominee, Arizona would have been vigorously contested by Barack Obama this fall. The state has a long Republican tradition but has been transformed by an influx of new arrivals. Bill Clinton actually carried it in his 1996 reelection campaign, and Al Gore only lost by six points in 2000.

Still, it never portends well for a candidate when he find himself fighting to hold on to his home state in a presidential election. Here are some other recent instances of candidates struggling in their backyards:

* Al Gore lost Tennessee—where he had previously won two Senate campaigns—to George W. Bush by four points in 2000. Bush made Gore’s transformation from Southern Democrat to national party leader an issue, traveling to Tennessee late in the campaign to declare: “The vice president said the other day that he’s going to win his home state. Well, he may win the District of Columbia, but I intend to carry the state of Tennessee!” Had Gore prevailed in his home state, he would have won the presidency.

* George H. W. Bush, four years after carrying it by 13 points, barely held on to Texas in his failed 1992 reelection campaign, prevailing by just three points. In fairness, though, Bush, a native-born Yankee who spent much of each year in Kennebunkport, Maine, never really fit in in Texas during his career and lost his one bid for statewide office there, in 1970. In ’88, Bush benefited from his Republican label and the state’s distaste for the Massachusetts-bred Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis. In ’92, Bush’s opponent, Bill Clinton, came from a neighboring state, Arkansas.

Bush also lost his second home state, Maine, in ’92 – actually finishing third in the state, behind Clinton and Ross Perot. Perhaps more embarrassingly, though, he also lost Kennebunkport.

* Michael Dukakis, reelected to a third gubernatorial term with nearly 70 percent of the vote just two years earlier, found himself in a dogfight in Massachusetts in 1988. Ultimately, he carried his home state over George H. W. Bush by eight points, but not before Bush scored some devastating headlines by campaigning in the state. In one appearance, Bush took a tour of Boston Harbor, showcasing the pollution that he’d made a campaign issue (even though the harbor had been polluted for decades and had been significantly cleaned up on Dukakis’ watch), and then appeared at a rally with the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, winning their endorsement and reinforcing his campaign theme that Dukakis was “soft” on crime.

* Walter Mondale pulled out a victory in Minnesota by just 3,000 votes in 1984, a skin-of-his-teeth win that prevented Ronald Reagan from scoring the first-ever 50-state landslide.

* Gerald Ford won Michigan by five points, although this wasn’t too shocking: As a congressman, he’d only represented a sliver of the sprawling state, which contained (and still contains) heavily populated areas that are overwhelmingly Democratic.

* George McGovern lost his native South Dakota by nine points to Richard Nixon in 1972, one of the 49 states he fell short in that year.

* Barry Goldwater, McCain’s Senate predecessor, eked out a victory in Arizona over Lyndon Johnson, the only non-Southern state that Goldwater won – or was even close in.

* Richard Nixon edged out John F. Kennedy by 0.5 points in California in 1960. Before becoming V.P. in 1952, Nixon had served two terms in the House (representing about 3 percent of the state), was in his second year as a senator when Dwight D. Eisenhower chose him for his ticket. * Richard Nixon edged out John F. Kennedy by 0.5 points in California in 1960. As with Ford’s ’76 win in Michigan, though, the significance of this margin is dubious: Nixon only represented about 3 percent of the state when he served in the U.S. House between 1946 and 1952.

* Adlai Stevenson’s one term as governor of Illinois (from 1959 to 1953) did him no good when he sought the presidency in 1952 and 1956; he lost his home state by 10 points in ’52 to Dwight Eisenhower and by 16 points in a ’56 rematch. Eisenhower won both national elections in landslides.

UPDATE: When I first wrote this post, I inexcusably forgot about Nixon’s infamous 1950 Senate race, when he defeated Helen Gahagan Douglas with charges of communist sympathies, charging that she was “pink right down to her underwear.” Nixon won the race with 59 percent of the vote.