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Why Is It Hard for Senators to Become President?

- January 24, 2008

This Washington Post piece delves into the perennial question of why so few Senators have been elected President:

bq. Of the 100 sitting senators, 16 have run for president. Since John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960, becoming only the second person elected from the Senate to the White House, 47 senators have unsuccessfully sought residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

(Click here for a list of the 16.)

The Post piece puts forth these explanations: citizens prefer “executives” (namely, governors); Senators are too often “bogged down in legislative complexities that confused voters”; and Senators, especially committee chairs, “have been showered with attention by lobbyists and corporate executives seeking legislative fixes,” which presumably (although the article does not say) means that voters perceive Senators as having been corrupted.

A very relevant piece of research on this question is this 2002 piece by Barry Burden (see also his updated data through 2004). Here are some of Burden’s key points:

1) It is rare for sitting Senators to be elected President. But other Senators have been elected, after serving in other offices, in particular vice-president, prior to their election — e.g., Van Buren and Truman. So clearly Senate service — with its attendant legislative complexities and associations with special interests — imparts no permanent taint. As Burden writes, “It does not seem that legislators necessarily have a more difficult time than other contenders because of the positions they take on roll calls, the negotiating and compromising they do with other members, or the lack of credit they can take for government accomplishments.”

2) The story is not just about why sitting Senators fail, it’s about why governors succeed at higher rates. So a comparison between the two is helpful. Burden discusses a series of factors that could explain the differences in success for Senators and governors. I will highlight a couple that are less often discussed in the media and casual commentary. One is about the nature of the investment that each candidate can make:

bq. Only one-third of senators’ terms end when any given president’s does, and there are no legal limits on how long they may serve. As a result, senators whose terms are not up may casually pursue a presidential bid without jeopardizing their status as elected officials. If the campaign does not succeed in the early prenomination period, one may simply abandon it and return to life in Washington. The experience might even be helpful in testing the presidential waters again in the future. Many governors do not have this low-investment luxury. When their terms end, most have to pursue another office or return to private life. They must be serious about their presidential campaigns because it is generally all-or-nothing. The degree of investment should be deeper and more uniform for governors than senators, because they have less to lose.

Another factor is the differences in the “candidate pool” of Senators and governors:

bq. Because of greater turnover among governors than senators and differences among the people who serve as governors than senators, the heterogeneity of governors is greater. Part of this comes from the fact that the path to the governor’s mansion is less orderly than the path to the Senate. The natural variance in governors’ capabilities as politicians means that many of them at the low end of the “quality” distribution are unfit for a presidential campaign but that those at the high end of the distribution are well suited to the task. The distribution of senators’ fitnesses is tighter, resulting in fewer who are complete failures and fewer who are natural presidential nominees.

4) Some interesting evidence emerges from a quantitative analysis of presidential contenders. Governors who run tend to hail from larger states than senators who run, suggesting that the governors who run are more strategic: “only the best [governors] will make serious runs for the presidency, and they tend to be from the largest states with the most professional governments.” Notably, former Senators who run are no different from governors in this respect. It is sitting Senators who tend to hail from smaller states than governors.

Here is the take-away lesson, I think:

bq. Though senators are probably at least as likely as governors to harbor progressive ambition for the presidency, I argue that their differing success rates are due in part to deeper campaign investment by the typical governor. Governors also benefit from more careful self-selection, with those from larger states, especially in the South, more likely to run.

The whole paper is worth reading.