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Stuart Rothenberg: Conventional wisdom: Can a senator win the White House?

March 1, 2019

The abundance of sitting senators running for president seems to confirm the old joke that a senator looking into a mirror sees a future president. But it doesn’t say much about whether the Senate is a good springboard to the White House. Historically, it has not been.

Sitting senators have underperformed in contests for presidential nominations, with only three of them moving directly to the White House — Warren Harding, John Kennedy and Barack Obama.

As University of Wisconsin political scientist Barry Burden wrote in a 2002 Political Science Quarterly article titled “United States Senators as Presidential Candidates,” the Senate “has seldom been the presidential incubator or nursery it ought to be given the ambition, visibility, resources, and records of both current and former members of the institution.”

But that has not stopped a horde of senators from jumping into the 2020 Democratic race for president. So far, six of them are pursuing White House bids: Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Once again this year, senators are getting the lion’s share of the attention. Part of this has to do with the national media’s familiarity with them, but, as Burden points out, senators have many assets, including campaign experience, the ability to raise large amounts of money, and name ID. And yet, he writes, “statistical evidence shows that poor performance of senators is more than coincidence.”

Of course, this year could be different, just as 2008 was, when two senators, Obama and John McCain, faced off in the general election.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime senator, is considering a bid this time, and he would automatically jump into the top tier of contenders if he runs.

But the rest of the current field, apart from the senators, look underwhelming.

It includes a mayor, a former congressman, a sitting congresswoman and a former Cabinet official. A handful of current and former governors are also expected to join the field at some point. And governors and former governors have a way of surprising.

This year’s potential crop of sitting and former governors who are considering the contest — Steve Bullock of Montana, John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Jay Inslee of Washington and Terry McAuliffe of Virginia — seem likely to stress their pragmatism and electability, as well as their executive experience.

That message may not resonate with Democratic activists and voters, who appear more ideological and confrontational. So, how should we evaluate the past performance of senators in presidential contests as we predict their potential for 2020? I looked at the last 15 presidential elections — meaning the last 30 nominees by the two major parties, going back to 1960 — and found nine nominees were incumbent presidents, six were current or former vice presidents, six were sitting or former governors, eight were sitting or former senators, and one was a businessman who had held no previous office.

It’s not surprising that sitting presidents and incumbent or former vice presidents would be successful winning party nominations. Party activists and donors knew them, and their connection to a presidential ticket gave them a certain stature and experience that other hopefuls lacked.

That hardly suggests senators can’t be nominated or even that they face a substantial disadvantage. But can senators win if they are nominated?

Of the last 15 presidential election winners, six were incumbent presidents and two were sitting or former vice presidents. That accounts for more than half of all presidential winners since 1960. Of the remaining seven, four were sitting or former governors, two were senators and one had no previous political experience. Of the 15 nominees who lost, three were incumbent presidents, four were sitting or former vice presidents, two were sitting or former governors and six were sitting or former senators.

Given the onetime conventional wisdom that senators have a hard time getting elected president, I wondered whether that conventional wisdom still holds.

Sandy Maisel, a Colby College government professor and longtime student of American politics, doesn’t think so.

He told me politics has changed in many ways, from fundraising to weaker parties and more media coverage, and those developments have changed the nominating process.

“The office you hold is no longer important,” Maisel says. “Can you excite people? Can you raise a lot of money? And, in a cycle like this one, can you find a niche that distinguishes you from the large field? That’s more important, not the office.”

Sounds about right to me.