The Wall Street Journal has a piece today on former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty’s “homespun tale”—looking at his roots as the son of a truck driver in South St. Paul that the Republican presidential candidate often cites. Most interesting, though, is a bit of presidential trivia: If elected, Pawlenty would be the first president to have spent his entire life in a single state.
That’s right: Pawlenty has lived his whole life in Minnesota. Within the same 20 mile stretch of Minnesota, to be exact. Were he to win the election, his presumptive move to the White House would be his first extended stay in another state (well, if you want to call DC a state, but that’s a different discussion entirely). Pawlenty attended the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate and later for law school, settled in the suburb of Eagan, and even when he resided in the governor’s mansion, it was only about 10 miles from South St. Paul. Our Founding Fathers had to take ships and horses to travel about, but they still managed to survey other locales before their election. In the age of interstate highways and air travel, Pawlenty’s story seems even more unusual.
The only other president who could lay a similar claim was Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th president of the US. While he was born in New Jersey, he moved to New York as a toddler and remained there his entire life until taking up residence in the White House. He, too, claimed his roots as part of his allure. “He was an outsider, and that was critical to his candidacy,” Rick Shenkman, editor and founder of George Mason University’s History News Network, tells Mother Jones. Cleveland’s run for the presidency was notable, too, for his rapid rise to national prominence, jumping from sheriff of New York’s Erie County, to mayor of Buffalo, to the presidency in just three years.
So will this little bit of trivia have any impact on Pawlenty’s candidacy? In the last election, Sarah Palin was mocked for her lack of worldliness. But even she had lived in Idaho and Hawaii before settling in Alaska. By contrast, Republicans criticized Obama for being “rootless,” because he’d lived in not just several states but also Indonesia (and had written a book about visiting Kenya) before his White House bid. Then again, while his sedentary lifestyle is exceptional for a presidential candidate, he’s hardly an outlier among the American public; according to a 2008 Pew study, four in ten Americans have never lived outside their hometowns.
T-Paw, who likes to call himself a “Sam’s Club Republican,” is hoping his Minnesota roots will help him come across as folksy to Republican primary voters. But so far that charm doesn’t appear to be working all that well.