Bill Clinton, famously, was born and raised in Hope, Ark., a fact that was employed to great effect during his 1992 candidacy for the presidency. (If you aren't old enough to have experienced it, imagine how often it would have come up in 2008 if President Obama had been born in "Change, Hawaii.") But Democrats in Clinton's home town don't hold out much ... of a chance of winning the town this year. Hope, as the Los Angeles Times reported on Tuesday, has been growing steadily more Republican since Clinton was elected.
That made us wonder how long the electoral benefit to a political party lasted in the home town of a president. And the answer is: not very long, in the rare occasions it existed at all.
We looked at the last 10 presidents, tracking how their home towns (or, really, the counties that contain their home towns) voted in every presidential election since 1960. The presidents, and their home towns, are as follows:
- John F. Kennedy (D). Born in Brookline, Mass. Elected in 1960.
- Lyndon B. Johnson (D). Born in Stonewall, Tex. Became president in 1963.
- Richard Nixon (R). Born in Yorba Linda, Calif. Elected in 1968.
- Gerald Ford (R). Born in Omaha. Became president in 1974.
- Jimmy Carter (D). Born in Plains, Ga. Elected in 1976.
- Ronald Reagan (R). Born in Tampico, Ill. Elected in 1980.
- George H. W. Bush (R). Born in Milton, Mass. Elected in 1988.
- Bill Clinton (D). Born in Hope, Ark. Elected in 1992.
- George W. Bush (R). Born in New Haven, Conn. Elected in 2000.
- Barack Obama (D). Born in Honolulu. Elected in 2008.
Did the president's party do better in the wake of his election? Not really.
The chart below shows how presidential home counties voted before, during and after the election of their native sons. Positive values mean that the county voted for the president's party; negative, against. So, in the Johnson example, Republicans won the elections before and after his 1964 victory (1960 and 1968/1972) -- by margins of about 60 points on average. But when he ran in 1964, his county barely voted Democratic. In the case of Ford, Republicans always won handily, before and after he ran in 1976 -- and, in fact, his home town voted less strongly for his party when he was on the ticket.
Three of the four past Democratic presidents in our list saw bumps for their party in the years that they were on the ballot but with their home counties basically reverting to past practice afterward. The exception is Kennedy, who barely won his home county in 1960 but where Democrats did very well in 1964 (in part thanks to the emotion surrounding his assassination) and 1968.
Most of the Republicans either saw very modest increases when they were on the ballot or were simply points along a downward slide. But there's a likely reason for this. The Bushes were born in Massachusetts and Connecticut, states that have voted more and more strongly Democratic in recent presidential elections. And, of course, neither Bush spent a lot of time talking up his Northeastern roots.
It's interesting to look at how this has evolved over time. This chart is complex but hopefully legible. It's the margin for the president's party in his home town in each election from 1960 to 2012. The first example, Kennedy, is a good one. In 1960, when he was elected (noted by a yellow bar), Democrats barely won. In 1964, they did better, but it slowly tapered off until Reagan. Then it picked up again, peaking in 1996 and then declining once again.
This graphic helps put that Times article into context. Yes, support for Democrats in Hope has faded quickly since Clinton left office. But it had dropped and then risen in the past (thanks to another Southern candidate, Jimmy Carter). The trend is still a short-term one. Who knows what another candidate from Arkansas could do.