Elections: The Home State Effect in Presidential Elections: Advances in the Study of Localism

By Disarro, Brian; Barber, Jillian et al. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Elections: The Home State Effect in Presidential Elections: Advances in the Study of Localism


Disarro, Brian, Barber, Jillian, Rice, Tom W., Presidential Studies Quarterly


History shows that presidential candidates often win their home states by large margins. This phenomenon, which is sometimes called localism, has attracted the attention of scholars for decades. In this study, we improve upon previous localism research in several significant ways. Most important, we challenge the traditional conceptualization of the home state effect, arguing that a candidate's national showing is best thought of as a determinant of the effect instead of part of it, as has often been the case. We also devise three other new hypotheses to account for variation in the home state effect. All (these hypotheses find support in our empirical analyses, providing the most complete understanding of the home state effect to date.

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Al Gore's narrow loss to George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election is often attributed to ballot irregularities in Florida. What is frequently forgotten is that Gore would have won if he had carried any of a number of other close states, including his home state of Tennessee. Losing Tennessee must have been a particularly stinging blow to the campaign because presidential candidates are supposed to win at home. According to popular wisdom, the lure of a home state contender practically guarantees widespread support from voters. While history indicates that this axiom is overly optimistic, the fact remains that most presidential candidates do win their home states. Bush, for example, easily carried his home state of Texas in 2000.

Why do some presidential candidates poll well in their home states while others do not? Put in terms of the 2000 election, why did Gore lose at home and Bush win? To answer these questions, we take the most comprehensive look to date at the determinants of home state voting in presidential elections. Making use of data from 1880 to 2004, we rethink the definition of the home state advantage and uncover a number of new factors that influence the size of this advantage. Our analysis goes a long way toward explaining why some presidential candidates sail to victory in their home states while others suffer embarrassing defeats.

Measuring the Home State Advantage

Early research on the extent to which candidates poll well close to home examined state primary elections. Key's (1949, 37) analysis of Democratic gubernatorial primaries in the South at midcentury showed that candidates almost always won "overwhelming majorities in their home counties." He attributed this trend, which he termed localism, to the personality-driven one-party Democratic politics that long dominated the region. Black and Black (1973) and Tatalovich (1975) corroborated Key's findings in Alabama and Mississippi, respectively.

These pioneering studies operationalized localism as the percentage of the vote that a candidate receives in his or her home county. Such a straightforward measure makes sense for primary elections, but in general elections, where partisanship comes into play, a more nuanced measure is useful. To understand why, consider the recent case of John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee. Kerry won 61.9 percent of the vote in his home state of Massachusetts, suggesting a healthy home state advantage. However, compared to how well other recent Democrats have done in the state, Kerry's landslide victory seems commonplace. In 2000, Gore won 59.8 percent of the vote, and in 1996, Clinton won 61.5 percent of the vote. Placed in context, Kerry's victory seems to have less to do with a home state advantage and more do to with normal Democratic expectations in Massachusetts. More important, it underscores the need to consider long-term voting patterns when calculating the home state effect in partisan elections.

Lewis-Beck and Rice (1983) were among the first scholars to examine the home state effect in partisan elections, and they recognized the need to incorporate past voting trends into their measure of localism. …

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