Archive for Sunday, June 23, 2002

Senate offers weak start for presidential bid

June 23, 2002


— Once again, the Senate is full of presidential wannabes. Three Democrats, John Edwards of North Carolina, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, are out most weekends, cultivating friends in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and wooing contributors everywhere. Joseph Biden of Delaware and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut reportedly are weighing the possibility of joining the chase. And the boss man, Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, has carefully left the door open for himself.

All this, despite the fact and it is a fact that senators just don't make it.

In all of American history, only two men Warren Harding and John Kennedy have gone straight from the Senate to the White House. Bob Dole in 1996 was the last sitting senator to win a party nomination (though he resigned his Senate seat a few months before the convention) and, like most of his predecessors, he was whomped in the election.

In 2000, two men who had spent most or all of their public careers as senators, Al Gore and Bill Bradley, and a sitting senator, John McCain, were in the race and all three lost.

The statistics show that vice presidents (many of them, like Gore, former senators) and governors and former governors (such as George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter) have far greater success in winning nominations and in making it to the White House than do senators.

Between 1960 and 1996, senators were the largest group of presidential contenders, providing almost 37 percent of those who ran in at least one primary outside their home states, as compared with 23 percent who were governors. But only one out of 10 senators won nomination and only one out of 50 (Kennedy), the election. Governors did better in both regards.

These figures come from an article in the current Political Science Quarterly, written by Barry Burden, a professor of government at Harvard. Burden speculates about why so many senators try and why so few succeed.

On paper, at least, senators are plausible presidential candidates. They are usually mature, experienced, conversant with national and international issues and, thanks to TV interview shows, often fairly well-known. They also have the advantage of six-year terms, with no term limits, as compared to governors, most of whom run every four years and often must step aside after one or two terms.

Senators ought to have the edge, Burden says. So why don't they? Burden considers and rejects several possibilities. Senators have to vote on more issues, but rarely are they defeated as a result of some past roll call. As legislators, they rarely can claim sole credit for any big achievement. But governors' victories hardly ever are noted outside their home states and not always there.

But there are differences between senators and governors that may well explain the pattern. Because the Senate, by design, treats each state, regardless of population, the same, small-state senators are as likely to have their presidential ambitions fueled as those from larger states. The average senatorial contender has come from a state with 13 electoral votes; the average governor seeking the presidency, from a state with 23 electoral votes.

The larger your base, the better your chance of winning. Bill Clinton is the exception here; Ronald Reagan and Bush, more typical. Other differences also show: Senatorial aspirants are typically older than governors and, in the past four decades, fewer of them have come from the South, the most advantageous base for recent presidential contenders (Johnson, Carter, Bush, Clinton and, once again, Bush).

But there are two other differences that are probably more telling. One is battle-readiness. Governors face competition almost every election. With their six-year terms, senators go a long time between campaigns. And for most of them Dole being a prime example re-election races are walkovers. As Burden says, "mere name recognition, incumbency perquisites, challenger deterrence and constituent loyalty are what really contribute to re-election. This works in one's own state, but could fail miserably on the road."

And the second difference concerns staff. Senators' personal staffs are smaller than governors' and often scattered among home-state offices, the personal office and the senator's committees. Governors, by contrast, have centralized, tightly structured staffs, often populated by people who came off their campaigns, so "they can easily be converted back into a personal campaign machine that suits a presidential bid."

All these factors apply to the Bush-McCain contest, our most recent governor vs. senator test: Age, size of state, Dixie base, recent tough election experience and ready-made campaign staff Bush had them all.

There may be a message here for the Democrats and all those senatorial wannabes.

David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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