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Which Offices Are Good Stepping Stones To The Presidency?

With no true front-runner in the Democratic primary, it seems almost everyone thinks they can be president. Perhaps as many as two dozen Democrats are considering jumping into the 2020 primary campaign, and many of their résumés are thinner than that of your traditional presidential candidate. Unfortunately for them, history doesn’t bode well for their chances.

We went back to the very first presidential election in 1789 and looked up the highest civilian government office that each major party’s nominee1 had held at any time before the election (excluding the presidency, since we’re not trying to measure re-election rates2). Granted, this is a somewhat subjective exercise — for example, is governor or senator a higher office? (I chose governor because there are fewer governor posts to go around, but you may disagree with that decision.) Most calls, however, are pretty straightforward — vice presidents rank higher than, say, mayors. Below is a table of the various offices in the order we decided to rank them, plus the total number of nominees — and winners — for whom that was the highest office they reached before their run.3

Presidential nominees and winners by highest prior office

For every U.S. presidential election, civilian offices only

Highest Prior Office Nominees* Winners
Vice president 9
5
Supreme Court justice 1
0
Cabinet-level appointee 12
6
Governor 21
10
U.S. senator 18
7
U.S. representative 7
2
Sub-Cabinet appointee 2
0
Other statewide office 1
0
Mayor 0 0
Other 9
5

*Counting only the two major-party nominees for each election. For the 1824, 1836 and 1860 elections, which featured multiple candidates from the same party, we used the top two popular-vote getters. The 1788, 1792 and 1820 elections were uncontested, so only one candidate was counted.

Sources: Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress, Encyclopedia Britannica, WhiteHouse.gov, presidential libraries, University of Virginia, New York State Unified Court System, CNN, USA Today

As you can see, some offices are better stepping stones than others. But these stats obviously don’t include anyone from the highly uncertain 2020 Democratic race, so let’s take a look at the success rates for individual offices to see how 2020 candidates (and potential contenders) might fare.

Vice president

2020 contenders: Potentially Joe Biden

Vice presidents account for only nine presidential nominees in American history. That’s not many, so it might look like bad news for Joe Biden if he runs. But it’s also misleading. First off, there are far fewer vice presidents than there are senators or governors; second, vice presidents have been running much more often in recent history, when the vice presidency has grown in importance. Six of the nine presidential nominees who previously served as vice president have run in the last 60 years, and three of the seven most recent vice presidents later won their party’s nomination for president,4 though only one (George H.W. Bush) made it to the Oval Office. A fourth vice president from this recent group — Dan Quayle — also ran for president, and he was the only one who did not become his party’s nominee.

Cabinet-level appointee

2020 contenders: Julian Castro; potentially Eric Holder, John Kerry

We’ll skip over Supreme Court justices, since only one presidential nominee in history — Charles Evans Hughes in 1916 — had been one, and that almost certainly isn’t going to change in 2020. But there is at least one Cabinet-level appointee in the Democratic primary field, and he could be joined by two more. Cabinet secretaries — especially secretaries of state — used to be seen as prime presidential material. However, that’s changed in recent decades, arguably because the democratization of the nomination process created a bias toward candidates who have had experience getting elected to things. In 2016, however, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination, becoming the first Cabinet secretary nominated for president by a major party since Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover in 1928. Overall, 12 Cabinet-level appointees have been nominated for president (nine of whom were secretaries of state), and half have won.

Governor

2020 contenders: Potentially Steve Bullock, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Terry McAuliffe

Historically at least, the governorship is the most common stepping stone to the presidency. Twenty-one nominees had previously served as governors, and 10 were elected president. Starting with the modern primary era in 1972, we also have data about a broader group of people who ran for president, not just those who won their party’s nomination.5 Among presidential candidates whose most recent elected office was governor,6 13 percent — six out of 47 — became their party’s nominee. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s a higher batting average than any other elected office except vice president in the modern primary era. However, these stats will be put to the test in 2020, since the four current and former governors who look like potential Democratic presidential candidates are all probably underdogs and, at this point, haven’t even declared they’re running.

U.S. senator

2020 contenders: Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren; potentially Sherrod Brown, Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders

By contrast, the 2020 field is swarming with senators, including many of the race’s frontrunners. Yet comparatively few senators have been chosen as presidential nominees over the country’s history — 18 in total. Even worse, only seven of them went on to become president. There are several reasons senators may make weaker presidential candidates than governors: They have voting records that can be used against them, for example, and Congress tends to be unpopular. Of the 65 presidential candidates since 1972 whose most recent elected office was U.S. senator, just six went on to win their party’s nomination.

U.S. representative

2020 contenders: John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard; potentially Seth Moulton, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, Eric Swalwell

Only seven times in history has a party’s presidential nominee been someone whose highest previous office was U.S. representative (and three of those times were populist hero William Jennings Bryan). Unfortunately for 2020 hopefuls, the most recent was John W. Davis in 1924. Of the seven nominees, only two won the presidency: Abraham Lincoln and James A. Garfield, both over a century ago. (This recent shutout is despite 21 people whose most recent elected office was U.S. representative running for president during the modern primary era.) This year, though, a U.S. representative (Beto O’Rourke) could be one of the stronger candidates in the field.

Other statewide office

2020 contenders: Potentially Jason Kander, Mitch Landrieu

Now we’ve entered long-shot territory. We’ll skip over sub-Cabinet-level appointees, of whom there are currently none in the 2020 field and who have only twice before managed to snag their party’s nomination.7 As for people who have only been elected to a lower-level state office, only one has ever been nominated for president: The Democratic Party chose Alton B. Parker, who had been elected chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals (New York’s equivalent of state supreme court), to be the party’s sacrificial lamb against incumbent President Teddy Roosevelt in 1904. Perhaps it was this knowledge that has made oncebuzzy candidates like Jason Kander (the former secretary of state of Missouri) and Mitch Landrieu (the former lieutenant governor of Louisiana) quite unlikely to run in 2020.

Mayor

2020 contenders: Pete Buttigieg; potentially Michael Bloomberg, Bill de Blasio

Historically, mayors have rarely run for president. Since 1972, only a handful of mayors — most prominently Rudy Giuliani in 2008 — have even attempted a presidential campaign, and none has come remotely close to the nomination. In fact, in my research I only ran across three presidents who had once been mayors, and all of them held a higher office in between running a city and running the country: Andrew Johnson (former mayor of Greeneville, Tennessee, and later vice president), Grover Cleveland (a former Buffalo mayor who became governor of New York), and Calvin Coolidge (former mayor of Northampton, Massachusetts, and eventual vice president).8

That may be changing in 2020: The race has one officially declared mayor and two more who might join. But for now (and perhaps because of the small sample size), a mayoral primary win remains unprecedented: The U.S. has never seen a major-party presidential nominee whose highest prior office was mayor.

Other

2020 contenders: No major candidates

For a while, it looked like the 2020 Democratic field might include a prominent non-politician or two, such as Oprah Winfrey or Mark Zuckerberg. But as of now, there doesn’t appear to be anyone famous from outside government who is planning to run. Historically, nine people have been nominated for president despite not having held any of the offices mentioned here, and five of those nine won. However, seven of the nominees, and four of the five winners, had high-level military experience — specifically, they were all generals — which is not captured by our civilian rankings. They include towering figures like George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight Eisenhower. The one commander-in-chief who was elected without any political or military experience? That would be the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump.


From ABC News:

Footnotes

  1. For most of U.S. history, that’s been either the Republican or Democratic nominee. But there have also been times when the Whigs, National Republicans, Federalists and Democratic Republicans were one of America’s two dominant political parties. For elections when a party advanced multiple candidates for president — namely, 1824, 1836 and 1860 — we looked at the top two finishers in the popular vote, regardless of party.

  2. That also means we’re only counting Grover Cleveland’s first candidacy, although he went on to serve two nonconsecutive terms as president.

  3. When the same person was nominated multiple times, like William Jennings Bryan was in 1896, 1900 and 1908, each of his nominations is counted separately.

  4. And at least two — Biden and Mike Pence — may yet do so.

  5. FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver first tallied up these numbers back in 2011, and we’ve updated his findings with the results of the 2012 Republican, 2016 Democratic and 2016 Republican primaries. We’re excluding primaries that were not competitive, like the 2012 Democratic primary.

  6. Note that “most recent office” is different from the “highest office” methodology most of this article is using, although many times, a politician’s most recent office is also his highest office.

  7. Both times, it was Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the Federalist nominee in 1804 and 1808. The highest civilian office he held before his runs was minister to France, although he was also a general and a signer of the U.S. Constitution.

  8. Johnson and Coolidge held several other offices between their stints as mayor and vice president.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

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