Tuesday, January 25, 2011

From House to White House

Aaron Blake argues today that present-day circumstances make it more likely that Members of the House can win presidential nominations, something that as he notes hasn't happened for some time. He points to former Speaker Newt Gingrich and current Members Mike Pence and Michele Bachmann as potentially viable national candidates this time around.

I continue to disagree.  Let's see what we have here.

First, I think Blake undercounts past House candidacies during recent (post-reform) history. Blake list four serious candidates: Richard Gephardt in 1988, Jack Kemp '88, John Anderson '80, and Mo Udall '76. I think one would have to add Gephardt '04 to that list; while his campaign fizzled, it was certainly a serious effort, much more so in my view than Anderson's (which drew some votes, but at no point had anything close to a chance of claiming the nomination).

At any rate, Blake's list undermines his claim that things "have begun to change." Counting Gephardt ('88), Kemp, Anderson, and Udall, we get four serious candidates in the six open nomination battles 1972-1988, and either one (Gephardt '96) or none in the seven open contests 1992-2008. Hard to call that a rally for the House!

What about candidates of any kind? Blake sets up 2008, with four candidates (Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo, and Dennis Kucinich) as a step in the House's direction. Perhaps. I count the following as candidates for major-party nomination for president who had never reached higher than the House of Representatives to that point, and ignoring clear favorite son candidacies:

1972: Shirley Chisolm, Pete McCloskey, John Ashbrook.
1976: Udall
1980: Anderson, Phil Crane
1984: none
1988: Gephardt, Kemp, Pat Schroeder
1992: none
1996: Bob Dornan
2000: John Kasich
2004: Gephardt, Kucinich
2008: Paul, Hunter, Kucinich, Tancredo

I don't think I missed anyone, unless wikipedia also missed it.

So 2008 was, indeed, a high point for pure numbers, although certainly not for serious candidates.

As far as the substance, I've been over this recently with the excellent reporter David S. Bernstein. Take fundraising: yes, on-line appeals do allow previously unknown candidates a mechanism for raising money quickly. But really; Blake is impressed by the $13M that Bachmann raised in 2010. It's a lot. But Al Franken and Norm Coleman raised almost twice as much to run for Senate from Minnesota in 2008, and a presidential campaign -- at least one launched in order to attempt to win a nomination -- takes far, far more.

More broadly: running for president is about building a coalition big enough to reach a majority of a national political party. Running for the House just isn't very good training for it. House districts are small, with relatively few interests, and a very small primary electorate. Win a Senate nomination (or win a gubernatorial nomination and then serve as governor) and you are almost forced to work outside of your comfort zone, to learn how to expand your coalition.

That doesn't mean it's impossible for a Member of the House to win the presidency. I do think that Gephardt was a legitimate contender both times (as was Udall, but that had something to do with the newly reformed, and therefore unsettled, process of the time). Mainly, what I think is that since at least 1984 every nominee has been a coalition-style candidate, not a factional leader -- and that there are systematic reasons to expect that to continue, and systematic reasons to expect those who have won statewide office to be better coalition-building candidates than those who have not succeeded, or even competed, at that level.

(Update: dates corrected)


  1. You mean Gephardt '92, not '96, right? My memory may be failing me, but I sure don't remember anyone mounting a primary challenge to President Clinton.

  2. Thanks! Actually meant Gephardt '04, not '96. Got it right in the all-candidates list, wrong in the text. Fixed now.

    I blame his too-hard-to-spell name for getting me confused. Well, that and my sloppiness, for which I apologize.

  3. Bush Sr.'s highest elected office in 1980 was in the House. Granted, he had served in the interim as director of the CIA, UN ambassador, RNC chair, etc., but how would those things have helped him overcome the factionalism problem you claim is primarily responsible for the low number of serious candidates coming from the House?

  4. I was thinking of putting a note about him for 1980...I'd say all of those roles -- and, for that matter, his unsuccessful (large-state) Senate campaigns all helped. Obviously he had to deal with formal party officials and with party-aligned groups at the RNC, and the other things gave him other ins with party-aligned groups.


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