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Voting bloc shrinks as educational role grows

N.E. and the presidency

More than two centuries have passed in American political life, yet much has remained the same in terms of where we find and educate our presidents. Eight of our chief executives have been born in New England. Perhaps more significant, 14, or one-third, of our national leaders have been educated here. The first was John Adams, our second president, who was Massachusetts born and Harvard educated. The latest is George W. Bush, our 43d president, Connecticut born and Yale educated. The irony is that even as New England has dominated in educating American presidents, its role in electing them has diminished. In America's first presidential election in 1789, New England's proportion of electors was 27.4 percent, and it rose to a high of 28.9 percent in the election of 1792. But by the much-contested 2000 election, when Governor Bush won the Electoral College vote to beat Vice President Al Gore, New England's proportion of presidential electors had shrunk to 6.5 percent.

In the upcoming 2004 election, that number will be even smaller. After the 2000 Census, a relatively declining population resulted in a reapportionment that leaves New England with only 34 out of a total 538 electors, or 6.3 percent -- our lowest number ever.

Where did all our electoral votes go? They went west. Almost from the moment settlers arrived on the Atlantic's shores, Americans have moved west--first inland, then across the Mississippi, and toward the Pacific coast. By 1820, even as much of the region was settled and its major towns established, New England's proportion of the population began declining.

Since the Electoral College that selects our presidents and vice presidents is based on the number of House and Senate members each state has in Congress, the addition of more states and the continued population growth in those states has shifted the balance of political power away from the older regions of the nation. (With one exception: In 1864, when Abraham Lincoln was reelected president, New England's share of electoral votes went up. But that was only because 11 other states has seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy.)

But even as the nation's population -- and electoral votes -- have moved west, New England has remained dominant in a key indicator of presidential success: a New England education. Seven of New England's presidential native sons were undergraduates here: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and John F. Kennedy at Harvard; George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush at Yale; Franklin Pierce at Bowdoin; and Calvin Coolidge at Amherst. (Vermont-born Chester Arthur was educated at Union College in New York State.) But New England's colleges have also played a role in educating seven non-native presidents -- Rutherford B. Hayes at Harvard Law, James Garfield at Williams, both Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt at Harvard, and Yale-educated William Howard Taft and its Law School alums, Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton. New England's electoral votes may have gone west but young political talent still comes from around the nation to be educated here.

The region's political prominence owes much to Harvard and Yale, the nation's oldest and third oldest colleges. As college education has become more democratized over the past century, having a college degree per se seems no longer to be a guarantee of the intellectual prowess now expected from our presidents in a fast-changing world. So the shorthand for a quality education becomes a New England Ivy degree, and Harvard and Yale have apparently met the challenge.

In the nation's first 11 elections from 1789 to 1828, for example, a Harvard alumnus was a presidential or vice presidential nominee on either the Federalist, Democratic-Republican, or National Republican ticket. In the nation's last eight elections from 1972 to 2000, a least one Yale alumnus has been a presidential or vice presidential nominee on either the Republican or Democratic tickets.

Looking at the 2000 presidential race, where all four nominees were educated at Harvard or Yale, you would think a New England Ivy degree was an actual requirement for the office. Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush both held Harvard degrees -- a 1969 BA degree for Gore and a 1975 MBA for Bush. Bush also had a 1968 Yale AB degree as did Democratic vice presidential contender Senator Joe Lieberman (AB 1964). Lieberman also had a 1967 law degree from Yale.

Republican vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney began his collegiate education at Yale in 1959 before returning home to obtain two degrees from the University of Wyoming. Even third party candidate Ralph Nader, a 1955 Princeton graduate, graduated from Harvard (Law School 1958), as did his running mate Winona LaDuke (Harvard 1982).

Little has changed with this year's crop of presidential candidates. Three of the six most-mentioned Democratic contenders for the 2004 presidential nomination have some educational connection to New England. Senator Joe Lieberman has two Yale degrees. And there is one each for Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry (Yale 1966) and former Vermont governor Howard Dean (Yale 1971).

So in spite of its shrinking size and an electoral vote percentage of 6.3, New England still matters politically. Our native sons (and soon daughters) continue to be nominated for the country's top executive slot. But it is their fellow non-native alumni of these colleges and universities who come to New England's college to be networked and credentialed who have placed this region high in the nation's estimation of presidential candidacies. And for that continuing influence, New Englanders must thank its colleges and universities, especially all of those Yalies who gather around the "table at Mory's" (a local New Haven watering hole), intoning the Whiffenpoof lament of their being "little lambs who have lost their way."

With Yalie George W. Bush already president and Yalie Howard Dean leading the Democratic pack, it appears that the nation will yet again entrust its highest office to a Bulldog. The current preeminence of Yale in the nation's presidential arena remains intact. Those lost lambs have certainly been able to find their way into the White House.

Garrison Nelson is a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and a visiting professor at Brandeis and Boston College. This essay is excerpted from his forthcoming book, "Frost Heaves and First Tuesdays: New England Presidential Politics and Personalities."

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